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Preventing Exposure to Carcinogens on the Jobsite


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A well-known workplace risk associated with the construction industry is skin cancer, resulting from high levels of sun exposure on jobsites.

But did you know that solar ultraviolet radiation is not the only carcinogenic, that is cancer-causing, risk construction workers could be exposed to?

Once workers can identify them, they can know what to do to minimise their risk of exposure. 

Terry Slevin, Education & Research Director at Cancer Council Western Australia, believes it is vitally important for construction workers to be aware of the other cancer-related risks of working on the jobsite. Once workers can identify them, they can know what to do to minimise their risk of exposure.

Silica Dust

According to Slevin, it is estimated around 600,000 Australian workers each year are exposed to silica dust. And, each year, 230 lung cancer cases are diagnosed as a result of workplace exposure.

“Silica is surprisingly common,” notes Slevin. “It's found in stone, rock, sand, gravel and clay, as well as bricks, tiles, concrete and some plastic materials. When these materials are worked on or cut, silica is released as a fine dust, a hundred times smaller than a grain of sand.”

Silica dust is often even too small for the naked eye to observe. But breathing in too much of it can lead to lung cancer. 

Silica dust is often even too small for the naked eye to observe. But breathing in too much of it can lead to lung cancer. 

Slevin warns there are certain types of materials that tradespeople should be especially cautious around.

“Workers cutting artificial stone, such as that used in kitchen benchtops, should also be aware as these materials contain a very high percentage of silica,” he says.

Diesel Engine Exhaust 

The International Agency for Research on Cancer estimates that people regularly exposed to diesel fumes at work can be up to 40 per cent more likely to develop lung cancer. In Australia, high levels of exposure to diesel fumes is the second-most prevalent work-based cancer-causing agent, according to Slevin.

In Australia, high levels of exposure to diesel fumes is the second-most prevalent work-based cancer-causing agent. 

“While the general population might only be exposed to diesel occasionally, those who work with diesel-fuelled heavy machinery every day are at high risk. This includes those who work with diesel operated generators and compressors, especially in enclosed spaces,” Slevin says.

It’s estimated that around 1.2 million Australians are exposed to diesel engine exhaust at work each year, and that 130 workers each year are diagnosed with lung cancer as a result of that exposure.

Asbestos 

Asbestos has had a high profile in Australia for decades. Before its dangers were fully known and understood, asbestos was widely used in construction across Australia, predominantly in the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. The use of asbestos was phased out from the late 1980s, and a countrywide ban implemented in 2003.

Slevin says that asbestos is still present in approximately one in three Australian homes and buildings.

“There is still a high chance construction workers may come across asbestos at work and need to know where it may be, how to identify it, and what steps they need to take to protect themselves when working with asbestos containing materials,” he says.

Common products and materials containing asbestos include:

  • Flat or corrugated sheeting

  • Cement pipes 

  • Insulation

  • Floor tiles and their adhesives

  • Roofing

  • Textured paints and textiles

“Asbestos fibres are released into the air when people handle asbestos-containing materials with poor safety procedures. Asbestos fibres are around 50 to 200 times thinner than a human hair, can be invisible and can be breathed in easily,” says Slevin.

High-profile organisations such as Asbestos Australia have campaigned tirelessly to raise awareness of the dangers of exposure to the cancer-causing materials. Slevin notes that if the correct control measures are put in place, exposure to these carcinogens can be almost completely eliminated.

Visit http://www.cancer.org.au/preventing-cancer/workplace-cancer/ for more information.

If you liked this article, here are few eBooks and webinars you may enjoy: 

The Future of Construction Safety

Building a Culture of Safety - One Hard Hat at a Time

The 10 Things You Need to Know about Construction Safety

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