Occupational cancer - specific causes

This section lists some of the occupations with the highest incidence of occupational cancer registrations and some of the carcinogens used in those occupations that are the biggest cause of occupational cancers.

The aim of this section is to increase awareness of these cancers in the occupations in which they occur, and to suggest actions that could reduce exposure to the various carcinogens. Often, in most of the occupations where occupational cancers occur, more than one carcinogen is used or is present and specific carcinogens can cause cancers in different and multiple parts of the body. Some people are more susceptible to certain carcinogens and different lifestyles can also be a contributory factor, so the cause and effect are not always straightforward.

In Great Britain, 48 per cent of occupational cancer deaths (3,668 deaths a year) and 41 per cent of cancer registrations (5,408 a year) are in construction workers (Rushton et al 2010). Below is a table of the top occupations in which occupational cancers occur (registrations) and the main carcinogens associated with those industries.

Industry/Occupational circumstances and associated Carcinogens


  • Asbestos
  • Respirable Crystalline Silica
  • Solar radiation (sun exposure)
  • Diesel Exhaust Emissions

Roofing and road repair

  • Coal tars
  • Pitches
  • Asphalt
  • Solar radiation (sun exposure)

Metal Working

  • Mineral oils

Personal and Household services

(repair trades, laundries, dry cleaning, hairdressing and beauty)

  • Low level asbestos exposure
  • Tetrachloroethylene
  • Soots

Land Transport

  • Diesel Exhaust Emissions

Public Administration and defence

  • Solar radiation (sun exposure)

Shift work (night work)

  • Unknown but thought to be linked to disruption of the circadian rhythm

Work as a painter

  • Paints
  • Solvents
  • Asbestos
  • Silica
  • Wood dust

Work as a Welder

  • Welding fumes
  • Intense arc Ultra Violet radiation

Source: RR931, 2012 and RR800, 2010

Key occupational carcinogens


It is essential that construction workers and trades people are aware of asbestos and the harm it can cause, and that they fully understand the necessary controls. Although asbestos has not been used in new builds for some years it is still abundant in buildings and this group of workers is especially at risk. Asbestos awareness training is essential for those that might come into contact with asbestos during their work activities. The HSE has a lot of useful information.

Respirable crystalline silica

Silica in this form is causing 800 occupational cancer deaths a year. The use of water suppression or capture methods is required to reduce the amount of silica dust during activities such as kerb and block cutting. Remember the COSHH hierarchy: eliminate and reduce before relying on personal protective equipment (PPE). The following guides provide some useful information:


Paint contains various substances, solvents, additives and pigments that can be carcinogenic. Spray painting activities can also increase airborne exposure. Again the COSHH hierarchy should be considered, for example substitution for paints that contain less harmful substances, using technology that reduces exposure, increasing ventilation and using PPE.

Diesel exhaust emissions

These are now considered carcinogenic by the International Association of Cancer Research (IARC). Therefore there should be a duty to reduce and control exposure to these emissions. Reduce the amount of time diesel engines and equipment is running, especially if it is not in use. Look at increasing or improving exhaust filters or increasing ventilation to remove or capture exhaust emissions so they don’t build up. Find alternative power supplies, such as electricity or other equipment. The HSE guidance document Control of diesel engine exhaust emissions in the workplace provides more information.

Solar radiation (sun exposure)

There is a lot of awareness of the dangers of sun exposure, but still some people only consider it when they are on holiday and don't think about it as an occupational hazard. But for those who work a considerable amount of time outdoors it is a hazard, even in the UK in cloudy conditions. Although the numbers of non-melanoma skin cancer (NMSC) cases can be high, this cancer is very treatable and the deaths caused by it are low. However, the treatment can cost the health service a significant amount due to the number of cases. Cancers caused by sun exposure are easily preventable. Sun blocks can be very effective if the correct ones are used and applied as recommended. The best prevention is to reduce exposure by covering up.

Shift Work

The occurrence of breast cancers in shift workers could be due to the effects of the circadian rhythms on a number of mechanisms in the body and hormone levels. A number of studies support this theory, but as yet there is no conclusive evidence. So while more research is being undertaken, it would be sensible for women who work shifts to be made aware of how to perform regular self examinations. The HSE publication Managing shiftwork provides guidance on managing health and safety.

Welding fumes/intense arc light

Metal workers are exposed to gases containing a mixture of carcinogenic compounds including chromium and nickel. Sometimes this might be not only the content of the welding material itself, but also the combustion of materials on the surfaces of the metal. Most welders are aware of the protection required against intense light (UV light) and hot metal, but are not fully aware of the potential harm in the fumes. It is also important to shield other workers who aren’t involved in the welding from the UV light. Where possible materials that do not contain or have reduced amounts of carcinogens should be used. There should also be controls to reduce exposure to the fumes, such as increased ventilation. Refer to HSE guidance on guidance for more information.

Mineral oils

The carcinogenic properties of mineral oils have been known for some time now and this awareness needs to be continued. Where possible, exposure should be reduced, contact with the skin avoided and people issued with the appropriate PPE. Awareness programmes should encourage people to wash their hands after handling mineral oil so they don't cross-contaminate themselves.

Tetrachloroethylene (TCE)

TCE was mainly used in dry cleaning industry, and again cleaning agents that do not contain or have reduced amounts of TCE should be used. There is also improved technology that causes less exposure to TCE. For degreasing operations, exposure to TCE can be reduced by engineering controls such as enclosed systems. Following the COSHH hierarchy ventilation can also be improved to reduce any exposure to harmful substances.