WHO calls for cancer prevention at workplace

By Nozipho Dlamini

United Nations : The United Nations health agency has marked World Day for Safety and Health at Work with a call for the removal of cancer causing substances, also known as carcinogens, from workplaces.

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According to the World Health Organization (WHO), at least 200,000 people die every year from cancer, related to their workplace.

World Day for Safety and Health at Work is observed every year on April 28. This year, the main emphasis is that the risks for occupational cancer are preventable.

WHO Director of Public Health and Environment Maria Neira said lung cancer, mesothelioma and bladder cancer were among the most common types of occupational cancers.

Currently about 125 million people around the world are exposed to asbestos at work, and at least 90,000 people die each year from asbestos-related diseases while thousands more die from leukemia caused by exposure to benzene, an organic solvent widely used by workers, including those in the chemical and diamond industries.

“The tragedy of occupational cancer resulting from asbestos, benzene and other carcinogens is that it takes so long for science to be translated into protective action. Known and preventable exposures are clearly responsible for hundreds of thousands of excess cancer cases each year,” said Dr Neira.

She added that in the interest of protecting workers’ health, employers must adopt an approach rooted in primary prevention — that is to make workplaces free from carcinogenic risks.

Most cancer deaths caused by occupational risk factors occur in the developed world, said Dr Neira, who attributed this to the wide use of different carcinogenic substances such as blue asbestos, 2-naphthylamine and benzene, 20 to 30 years ago.

She warned that if the current unregulated use of carcinogens in the developing world continued, a significant increase in occupational cancer could be expected there in decades ahead.

WHO Medical Officer for cancer control Andreas Ullrich said the control of carcinogens in the workplace should be a key component of every national cancer control programme.

“To achieve this, WHO supports countries in developing comprehensive national cancer prevention and control plans, which are essential to prevent millions of cancer deaths each year,” he said.

The agency urged governments and industry to ensure that workplaces were equipped with adequate measures to meet health and safety standards, and that they are free from dangerous pollutants. It further called for a stop to the use of asbestos.

The WHO also suggested introducing benzene-free organic solvents and technologies that convert the carcinogenic chromium into a non-carcinogenic form, as well as banning tobacco use in the workplace.

The organization also called for employers to provide protective clothes for people who work outdoors, in order to protect them from the sun.