A number of occupations and specific chemical substances found in workplaces have been shown to increase the risk of certain cancers. Some of the most important cancer-causing substances in the workplace are described further:

Table 1 presents occupations in which higher cancer occurrences have been identified. In some of these occupations, the specific chemical substances causing cancer are known, whereas in others the specific substances have not been clearly identified.

Table 1: Cancer-causing occupations

or industry
Tumour sites (or types)
for which there is sufficient evidence of carcinogenicity in humans
Aluminium production Lung, urinary bladder
Auramine manufacture Urinary bladder
Coal gasification Lung
Coal-tar distillation Skin
Coke production Lung
Haematite mining (underground) Lung
Iron and steel founding Lung
Isopropyl alcohol production

Nasal cavity and paranasal sinus

Magenta production Urinary bladder
Painting Lung, mesothelioma, urinary bladder
Rubber production Leukaemia, lymphoma, lung, stomach, urinary bladder

Source: Reproduced from Cogliano VJ, Baan R, Straif K et al. (2011). Preventable exposures associated with human cancers. J Natl Cancer Inst, 103:1827–1829, by permission of Oxford University Press.

At workplaces, exposures are typically complex, with exposures to chemical substances alone, as mixtures, or in combination with other work-related exposures or other cancer-causing substances, such as smoking or alcohol drinking. Thus, many workers may potentially be exposed to several substances, and these may affect multiple cancer sites. Cancer-causing substances in the workplace cause predominantly lung cancer, and frequently also mesothelioma (cancer of the cells of the mesothelium, the protective lining that covers the chest, the abdomen, and the space around your heart) and cancers of the skin, urinary bladder, and oesophagus (Figure 2).

Figure 2: Cancer sites related to chemical substances found in the workplace.


Source: © iStockphoto.com.

Outdoor workers, including construction workers and agricultural workers, lifeguards, or gardeners may expose their skin to increased risk of UV damage. Other work-related exposures include second-hand smoke and radon.