Construction Cancer Risks

Construction Cancer Risks – according to the HSE, the construction industry has the largest burden of occupational cancer amongst the industrial sectors. It accounts for over 40% of occupational cancer deaths and cancer registrations. It is estimated that past exposures in the construction sector annually cause over 5,000 occupational cancer cases and approximately 3,700 deaths. Unless the risks are properly managed, the dangers of developing one of these diseases will remain.

The most significant cause of these construction cancer risks is asbestos (70%), followed by silica (17%), and then working as a painter and exposure to diesel engine exhaust (6-7% each). Other types of cancer can affect those in the construction industry, including skin cancers. These can be caused by exposure to solar radiation (sunlight) and hazardous substances.

 Why are Construction Cancer Risks so high?

Ignoring individual site practices for a moment, there are several underlying causes (or Latent Conditions) that are common to many construction sites and help us to understand why construction workers have a high risk of developing an occupational disease.

The construction site environment – unlike a factory, construction work takes place in many and varied environments. Different sites can present a range of health risks, including existing ones like asbestos. The extent of these risks can also vary between areas of the same site.

The changing (dynamic) nature of the work – construction sites are constantly changing, and a significant number of trades may all be carrying out tasks potentially dangerous to their health and that of others.

Lack of suitable risk appreciation – there is frequently a low awareness of health risks and the controls needed. It can take many years for serious ill health conditions to develop, and the immediate consequence of a harmful workplace exposure may often be dismissed as not significant compared to the immediate impact of injuries caused by accidents.

The pattern of employment – many workers are either self-employed, work for small companies, or frequently change employers. Others work away from home. These situations can make it problematical for workers to look after their own health easily and they often have little or no contact with occupational health professionals.

How can Construction Cancer Risks be reduced?

The risks of ill health need to be managed. Here are some starting points. If you need support with this, please contact us and see how we can assist you.

  • Accept that ill-health can be prevented – it is possible and practical to carry out construction work without causing ill-health.
  • Start to treat health like safety – managing health risks is no different to managing safety risks. It is essential to:
    • Assess the risks
    • Introduce and enforce appropriate control measures
    • Review the steps taken to eliminate and manage risks
  • Understand that everyone has a role to play – everyone involved in construction has a responsibility in managing risks to health (employers, contractors, workers, etc.). Each must take ownership of their part of the process.
  • Control the risk, not the symptoms – monitoring and health surveillance programmes are not enough on their own. While they are an effective part of managing health risks, the priority is to stop people being exposed to the risk in the first place.
  • Manage risk, not lifestyles – the law requires steps to be taken to prevent or adequately control work-related health risks. Helping workers tackle lifestyle issues like smoking or diet may be beneficial but is not a substitute for suitable, sufficient, and robust risk assessment process.

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