January 15, 2018
A new study quantifying the number of cancers resulting from workplace chemical exposure in Ontario is a wake-up call for employers. “We now have a picture of how big the problem of workplace cancer is in Ontario and it’s clear there’s work to be done,” says Craig Fairclough, Workplace Safety and Prevention Services (WSPS) occupational hygiene consultant.

Produced jointly by the Occupational Cancer Research Centre and Cancer Care Ontario, the study, Burden of Occupational Cancer in Ontario urges immediate action on four key carcinogens: asbestos, diesel engine exhaust, solar ultraviolet radiation and silica. Recommendations in the report include a number of insights, including making exposure limits tougher and reducing the use of toxic substances.

The four carcinogens with the largest number of workers exposed and the highest cancer burden each year are:
  • Asbestos will be banned in Ontario in 2018, but is still present in things like building materials, insulation, and brake linings. Each year, about 55,000 workers in the construction, manufacturing and automotive industries are affected.
  • Diesel engine exhaust. About 301,000 truck drivers, heavy equipment operators, maintenance and repair staff, and warehouse staff are exposed each year.
  • Solar ultraviolet radiation. Anyone working outdoors is well aware of the dangers of ultraviolet light. Approximately 450,000 workers in construction, agriculture, landscape construction, grounds maintenance and transportation are affected each year.
  • Crystalline silica. Exposure to fine silica dust occurs in the workplace when grinding, cutting, drilling or chipping various materials. About 142,000 construction workers, heavy equipment operators and manufacturing workers are affected each year.

Fairclough suggests five steps to reduce the risk of exposure to major carcinogens in the workplace:
  1. Use the report to build knowledge around these carcinogens and adapt suggested exposure reduction strategies to your workplace.
  2. Look into whether employees are, or may be exposed to hazardous substances used or stored in your workplace. How many employees may be at risk and in what circumstances?
  3. Assess the levels employees are, or could be exposed to.
  4. Compare the assessment results against regulated workplace exposure limits.
  5. If your workplace exceeds limits, take steps to eliminate exposure or bring it below the legal limit (ie: ventilation, barriers, etc.).

Occupational Exposure Limits (OELs) for airborne concentrations of hazardous biological or chemical agents are part of Ontario’s Occupational Health and Safety Act. For details, visit labour.gov.on.ca. For more information about inspection, monitoring and controlling workplace carcinogens, contact WSPS at 1-877-494- 9777.