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Call for better protection at work from cancer

Friday 7 November, 2014

VICTORIAN laws should be improved to better support and protect workers from occupational cancers according to Cancer Council Victoria.

Cancer Council Victoria today welcomed a commitment from both the Victorian Liberal Government and Labor State Opposition to introduce new laws that will make it easier for career and volunteer firefighters with cancer to get compensation. However, the evidence shows more needs to be done to prevent occupational cancers, which based on latest estimates may account for between 2 and 5 per cent of all cancer cases in Australia.

Workers thought to be at greater risk are employed in: forestry and logging; wood, fixture or furniture manufacturing; the petroleum and coal products industry; fire-fighting; fishing; construction; and mining. Established causal links include: a high number of mesothelioma cases related to asbestos exposure; cadmium and lung cancer; benzene or diesel and leukaemia; and ultraviolet radiation with skin cancers.

Cancer Council Victoria is calling on the next Victorian government to:

  • Join every other state and territory in supporting the National Strategic Plan on asbestos.
  • Back nationally consistent workplace health and safety laws that more effectively prevent exposure to carcinogens, and encourage the enforcement of existing laws.
  • Create a process for reviewing, monitoring and updating Victoria's Proclaimed Diseases List now, as well as systematically into the future.
  • Support legal protections for those who already work in at-risk occupations, and a fair compensation system for those who have developed a work-related cancer.
  • Enable research that quantifies the impact of occupational cancers, their agents, prevention methods and compliance with laws.

This year, an estimated 128,000 new cases of cancer will be diagnosed in Australia. However, no definitive data is available on how many of these are associated with exposure to certain chemicals or processes in the workplace or environment. Experts estimate that nationally there are anywhere from 2500 to 7600 new occupational cancer cases each year.

Cancer Council Victoria CEO Todd Harper said: "Occupational cancers are, to a large degree, avoidable provided that the risk of exposure is identified, where possible removed and - if not - adequately managed. As a state we could be doing more to reduce the number of new occupational cancer cases.

"That is why we are calling for measures that will effectively prevent workplace or environmental exposure to substances likely to cause cancer, as well as improvements to support for people who already have cancer that's related to such exposures."

Chair of Cancer Council Australia's expert Occupational Cancers Committee Terry Slevin said Australia would only address the harm associated with occupational cancers through coordinated action across all jurisdictions. Progress has been made on known cancer risks like passive smoking, asbestos and sun exposure - but even there more work is needed.

"There are also significant gaps in the evidence base so we do need further research in order to determine the extent of the problem and associated harms, as well as the effectiveness of prevention measures," Mr Slevin said.