Education an important tool for preventing workplace-related cancer

Prevention guide out of Quebec about limiting, preventing exposure
By Liz Bernier
|Canadian HR Reporter|Last Updated: 01/13/2014

It’s not the first of its kind, but a new cancer prevention guide could prove to be a life-saving tool, helping employers identify carcinogens in the workplace — and reduce or eliminate employees’ exposure.

Are There Carcinogens in Your Workplace? It’s Time to Act! was published by the Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST), a Quebec-based research organization, to help occupational health and safety officers, employers and workers identify carcinogens in the workplace as well as control, reduce or eliminate exposure.

Between three and 10 per cent of all new cancer cases occur because of workplace exposure, and Quebec alone will see 1,500 to 4,900 new cases in 2013 resulting from exposure decades ago, says the organization.

Occupational cancer is now Canada’s leading cause of work-related fatalities, according to the Occupational Cancer Research Centre. But it doesn’t have to be, said Montreal-based IRSST researcher and epidemiologist France Labrèche.

“We want to start a research agenda on carcinogens,” she says. “As an institute, we are more focused on exposure issues… preventing exposure is more effective in preventing cancer than to try and identify causes of cancer by looking at cancer cases.”

Preventing exposure most effective measure

The idea in creating the guide was to raise awareness and encourage organizational leaders to think more carefully about potential carcinogens in the workplace, says Labrèche.

“The guide is intended for occupational health and safety specialists, but also for employers and workers,” she says. “There action plan sheet, where people can tear out that page and go to their workplace and try to identify carcinogens and start doing something about it.”

It can be difficult to measure how much exposure is really taking place, so limiting or preventing exposure altogether is the best strategy.

“It’s difficult to know exactly what is the level of exposure to carcinogens,” says Labrèche. “We came up with a list that estimates about 38 more common carcinogens — but there can be more than that… There’s really a long list.”

Many workplaces carry some degree of risk, she says. But when it comes to carcinogens, workers need to have all the information about the risks they’re being exposed to.

“A person has to know it’s a carcinogen. When you know it is, you take necessary precautions. For example, lab workers… they know the products they work with are carcinogenic but they protect themselves. It’s very important to know to be able to protect yourself,” says Labrèche.

Employers have duty to educate workers

When it comes to educating workers about occupational cancer risks and workplace carcinogens, the duty falls squarely on the employer’s shoulders.

“Workers in Canada have a right to know what they’re exposed to, and employers have a legal obligation to educate those workers and make it easy for them to learn what they’re exposed to,” says Robert Nuttall, director of cancer control policy at the Canadian Cancer Society in Toronto.

But education in and of itself isn’t enough.

“There’s a number of things that employers can do to prevent cancer, to reduce risks that workers are exposed to. One of the main things they can do is educate their workers,” he says.

“The second thing they could be doing is looking at opportunities to either eliminate or reduce exposure… a lot of the time, like we’ve learned with asbestos, you can find alternatives to substances, so it may just be a matter of using something different.”

In some cases, though, alternatives simply aren’t possible, especially when it comes to common carcinogens that are a byproduct of the job.

“Sunlight is a major one… a lot of workers have to work outside, it’s part of their job,” says Nuttall. “There’s also diesel engine exhaust… there’s also things like wood dust or silica dust. Those are some of the bigger ones that we know cause a lot of cancers in the workplace.”

But working to limit exposure as much as possible will have benefits that go far beyond the workplace, he says.

“If employers are working in their workplace to protect the employees, it might have a spinoff effect in protecting non-workers, families and surrounding communities as well.”

Workplace culture must support healthy lifestyle

Beyond the legal obligations and requirements, there are measures employers can take to help prevent cancer — and promote good general health among employees.

“Any time there’s a cancer diagnosis within the employee population, it affects the business,” said Michelle Johnston, founder says managing director at Working-Well, an occupational wellness consulting firm in Mississauga, Ont.

But creating a workplace culture that supports and promotes wellness initiatives is the best way to ensure employees are as healthy as they can be, she says.

“It’s not going to stop cancer, but what it does is it helps to just put in that support, and it just reinforces a healthy lifestyle.”

Even something as seemingly minor as food offered at meetings can have an effect.

“Every little thing communicates well beyond words,” she says. “So if there’s a verbal communication or a written communication to provide healthy options in the workplace, then let’s have the food being delivered at meetings not be starchy white bread, bagels, sandwiches, muffins — that kind of thing. You want to look for whole fruits, whole foods, stuff that’s freshly prepared.”

It’s also important to consider the working environment itself, says Johnston.

“We’re looking at things like air quality, the chemicals that we’re using, the quality of the drinking water,” she says. “We’ve worked with some employers that have made the top 100 best employers to work for… they’re on top of everything. They’re really, really conscientious about that. Then there are other employers, maybe they’re smaller-sized companies, and there’s probably less of a focus, in my experience, on the environmental piece.”

The end goal is not only to minimize health risks such as occupational cancer, but also to support employees’ health and wellness in their personal lives as well.

“Ultimately, if employers are doing their part to supply the employee with a quality work-life experience — so beyond the task of the job, but if they can provide an environment where the employee can thrive and grow… you’re getting a better-quality employee,” says Johnston.

“We hear people say that they feel really taken care of, they can’t believe that the company is doing these things for them.”

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