Occupational and Environmental Cancer Risk

There are some occupational hazards (where you work) and environmental hazards (where you live) that can increase your risk of certain cancers.

Occupational cancer risks

Approximately 3.6 million Australians could be exposed to one or more carcinogens at work; this exposure is estimated to cause over 5000 new cases of cancer in Australia each year.

Occupational cancers are those that occur due to exposure to carcinogenic (cancer-causing) agents in the workplace. Such exposures include:

  • Combustion products (e.g., diesel engine exhaust, second hand tobacco smoke)
  • Inorganic dusts (e.g., asbestos, silica dust).
  • Organic dusts (e.g., leather dust, wood dust).
  • Metals (e.g., arsenic compounds, nickel compounds).
  • Radiation (e.g., artificial UV radiation and UV radiation from the sun).
  • Other industrial chemicals (e.g., benzene, aromatic amine dye exposure).

As of June 2016, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) had identified 198 known and probable cancer causing agents and circumstances; exposure to a number of these agents primarily occurs within the workplace. A study in 2012 considered 38 of these agents of high priority and specific to Australian workplaces.

All employers are required to manage known risks and hazards using the Hierarchy of Control. As an employee, ensure you follow required safety practices within your workplace and speak with a manager or supervisor if you feel your health and safety is at risk.

Workplace exposure factsheets for employees and employers

Cancer Council has developed resources (fact sheets, toolbox videos, posters, etc.) on a range of common workplace carcinogens. These resources have been designed for employers, employees and health and safety professionals covering information including what the cancer risk is, what you can do about them, legal obligations and where you can find more information. They aim to provide information about some workplace cancer risks, what you can do about them, legal obligations and where you can go for more information.

These resources include information on each of the carcinogen topic areas;

kNOw Workplace Cancer is a national occupational cancer project led by a group of experts from around Australia. For more information about workplace cancer please visit kNOw Workplace Cancer.

Workplace safety and compensation

In Queensland, safety and compensation services are represented by a strategic partnership between the Office of Industrial Relations (including the Workplace Health and Safety Queensland) and WorkCover Queensland.

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland

Workplace Health and Safety Queensland (WHSQ) is responsible for improving health and safety in workplaces and reducing the risk of injury, illness, or death on the job. WHSQ enforces health and safety laws, investigates workplace injuries and fatalities, and educates employees and employers on their legal obligations.

WorkCover Queensland

WorkCover Queensland is a government-owned statutory body, providing workers’ compensation insurance. If you believe your cancer could be a result of work-related exposure, WorkCover should be contacted. WorkCover conducts thorough injury claim assessments involving the injured worker, their employer and medical professionals. Subject to this claim assessment, you may be eligible to receive compensation for:

  • Lost wages.
  • Medical, surgical and hospital expenses.
  • Rehabilitation treatment and equipment services.
  • Travel expenses.
  • Lump sum benefits for those suffering from terminal cancer.
  • Funeral expenses.

For more information, visit the joint Workplace Health and Safety and WorkCover Queensland website or call 1300 362 128.

Please note that some employers provide workers’ compensation insurance under a self-insurance arrangement. WorkCover will be happy to direct you to the correct insurer, should it be considered your employer is self-insured.

Deemed disease laws for firefighters

Under the Workers Compensation and Rehabilitation and Other Legislation Amendment Act 2015, all firefighters who have been diagnosed with one of 12 specified cancers and have been employed for the respective qualifying period will have their cancer deemed as work related for the purpose of accessing compensation benefits. This means that a firefighter does not have to prove that their cancer was work-related.

The provisions apply to all current and former firefighters, including full time, auxiliary and volunteer, who are diagnosed with one of the scheduled cancers on or after 15 July 2015.

Environmental cancer risks

Potential environmental hazards that may occur in the home or public places include:

Asbestos and DIY

In Australia, asbestos was mined and imported for use in the manufacture of a range of building products and other materials. When asbestos fibres are breathed in, they may remain deep within the lungs and can cause inflammation, scarring, and increase your risk of a number of cancers including lung cancer, laryngeal cancer, mesothelioma, and ovarian cancer.

Homeowners may be exposed to asbestos fibres during accidental damage to asbestos-containing materials in the home, or as a result of the unsafe handling of asbestos-containing materials during DIY home renovations.

To minimise your risk of exposure it is important to identify if and where any asbestos-containing products were used within the home. If you are unsure if your home contains asbestos download the free ACM Check app for your phone either from the App Store or Google Play.

Removing asbestos safely can be a complicated process. For this reason, it is best carried out by licensed professionals who have completed relevant training.

Second-hand smoke

Second-hand smoke is the smoke that comes from a cigarette or other tobacco product that someone other than you is smoking and is a significant environmental risk. Second-hand smoke is a carcinogen, meaning it is known to cause cancer as it contains more than 7000 chemicals, 69 of which are known to cause cancer on their own.  There is no safe level of exposure to second hand smoke; it has been shown to be harmful even at low levels, including in outdoor areas.

Second-hand smoke is associated with a number of diseases and conditions in non-smokers, including lung cancer, lung disease, respiratory disease, worsening asthma, stroke and heart disease.

Reduce your exposure to second hand smoke by:

  • Keeping your house and car smoke free.
  • Protecting children and babies from second hand smoke.
  • Advocating for smoke-free spaces in your local community.
  • Supporting smokers, you know to quit.

UV radiation

Exposure to UV radiation from the sun is a common environmental cancer risk. In Queensland, UV radiation from the sun is strong all year round, even in winter.

Tips to reduce your UV radiation exposure:

  • Stay SunSmart every day.
  • Create shade in your backyard.
  • Consider tinting windows on your house and cars.
  • Advocate for increased shade in public places in your local community (e.g., playgrounds, parks, recreational facilities).

More information

For more information about other risks call Cancer Council 13 11 20.

The information available on this page should not be used as a substitute for advice from a properly qualified medical professional who can advise you about your own individual medical needs. It is not intended to constitute medical advice and is provided for general information purposes only. See our disclaimer.