Employee awareness lacking when it comes to carcinogens

Data sheets unknown or unclear, training uneven: Study
By Sarah Dobson
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 05/22/2012

They’re often invisible and it’s hard to see the immediate effects, but carcinogens can fill many a workplace, particularly in certain industries.

However, workers may not be aware of the possible dangers and effects, according to a Canadian study of 25 employees at three unionized workplaces.

In sitting down to speak with workers and health and safety officers at companies where workers are more prone to be exposed to carcinogens, researchers found many people lacked sufficient knowledge.

Asbestos was the one agent people knew about, said Carolyn Gotay, a professor in the School of Population & Public Health at the University of British Columbia (UBC) in Vancouver and lead author of the study.

“But then, beyond that, there was not nearly as much awareness and a lot of people… observed health effects in their co-workers or themselves and they weren’t really sure what that might be due to.”

The workers even knew of colleagues being off work or observed for chronic illness, but they didn’t understand what might be behind it. It’s difficult because this is not about visible injuries, such as someone falling and breaking a limb or being burned in the workplace, she said.

“When you’ve got chronic, long-term disability, that’s something that’s sort of invisible although (the workers) knew that these existed, they just weren’t salient in the environment. They weren’t aware of the extent, for sure,” said Gotay. “Because a lot of chronic diseases may occur many years after exposure, that long-term impact is always difficult to put your hands on.”

Not surprisingly, the workers did not know where to go in their workplace to find information about potential carcinogens. And if they did access the information, they couldn’t understand it.

“They try to read it and it just doesn’t make sense,” said Gotay. “I’m sure it’s very accurate and technical, but it’s not at a level where it makes sense to people.”

And often the data is provided in English and French when workers do not know those languages very well, she said.

Some companies do a great job with material data sheets but it’s highly variable, said Paul Demers, director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre in Toronto. In a study conducted a few years ago, he found most of the safety data sheets for toluene diisocyanate (TDI), a chemical known to cause asthma, didn’t even mention the word asthma.

“In general, material safety data sheets are not very high-quality and often are missing some of the major health hazards that are associated or they don’t state it in a very clear fashion for a normal person to read.”

One of the problems is most carcinogens are identified through animal tests and it’s very difficult to link that test to an actual human situation, said Bob Whiting, technical specialist at the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety in Hamilton. Plus, the latency periods can be very long, so it’s hard to assess or convey the impact.

“It tends to be more difficult with carcinogens than other things because of the highly technical nature of the information and also the difficulty of even knowing whether it’s present,” he said. “The big problem or challenge for people who study the training and education part is how can they convey how much risk there is from a certain substance versus what might be considered to be an objective risk calculation.”

Building awareness can also be a challenge if people assume a workplace is safe. If it’s clean, with good air and lighting, they might conclude it’s healthy, said Whiting.

“People associate carcinogens with chemical workplaces, bad smells, coke ovens and the steel industry, and some of the older chemical pesticides that were used like BDP, dioxin, those sorts of things. They associate cancer with chemical, industrial products like those and not with things like wood dust.”

Refusing work not always an option

While many workers know they have a right to refuse unsafe work, or to ask questions, those in the study were more concerned about keeping their jobs, said Gotay.

However, fear of recrimination varied according to seniority as longer-term employees had the confidence and status to make inquiries.

“Other people felt they were too tangential, they were just getting started, they couldn’t possibly risk it,” she said.

Unions can be helpful because they can provide a level of anonymity and often have research staff who can look into potential safety issues, said Whiting.

They can also “act as an independent force to push for things to get fixed or improved, so it isn’t just on the one person’s shoulders to convince their employer that something has to be done,” said Demers.

Gaps in training was another issue identified in the UBC study. Some of the people had not had adequate training and instead learned by looking at other people, said Gotay.

Others were trained when they started their jobs “but the continuing education component of that was really very spotty and since new agents are coming out all the time, it seems as though building in something that has more continuing, formalized education is, to our minds, something that’s warranted to a greater extent.”

In talking to health and safety representatives, Demers found another problem is many younger people are not as concerned as they should be about health and safety.

“Even in regards to asbestos, they feel as though people don’t take the risks that seriously as some of the older workers who have lost friends to asbestos-related disease,” he said. “The problem with cancer is there isn’t an immediate risk, it’s not like falling off a ladder or something. You get exposed to something and nothing is going to happen often for 10, 20 or 30 years, so that makes it easy to kind of take risks for granted or think, ‘Well, it’s not going to hit me.’”

The main message of the study is there’s a lot of room for improvement when it comes to the kind of information provided to workers, said Gotay.

Going forward, she and an advisory board — that includes researchers, representatives from WorkSafeBC and the government — are looking to bridge that gap through smartphone apps that could include videos and different languages.

“That would give people instant information about the various substances they may have questions about,” said Gotay. “We really think having something available when you need it is the important thing.”

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