Can your job give you cancer?

Could your job be a cancer risk?
Could your job be a cancer risk?

Some people are genetically predisposed to cancer, while others increase their risk through lifestyle factors such as unhealthy diet, smoking and drinking.

But environmental factors, though smaller, can also play a role in the increase of your risk for cancer. According to the Cancer Association of South Africa (CANSA) the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that 19% of cancers worldwide are caused by environmental factors such as the workplace, causing nearly 1.3 million deaths yearly.

Risk factors

According to the WHO, there are as many as 107 classified chemical agents, mixtures and exposure situations which are carcinogenic (cancer-causing) to humans.

According to CANSA, the following chemicals are the most common in South African occupations:

  • Benzene (workers who work with petrochemical compounds such as diesel fumes)
  • Hexavalent chromium (workers who work with compounds including electroplating, welding, and chromate painting)
  • Formaldehyde  (workers in synthetic chemical industries and in beauty salons)
  • Coke oven emissions (steel industry workers)
  • Asphalt fumes  (road tar workers)

These occupations were found to increase cancer risk:

1. Workers in the agricultural sector

Exposure to the sun increases the risk of skin cancer, but contact with pesticides and fertiliser can also significantly increase cancer risk. 


2. Nuclear power plant workers

Exposure to radiation is also known to increase a person’s risk for several cancers, such as thyroid cancer and leukaemia. Workers are at risk for radiation exposure through accidents, but low doses of radiation over time could also increase cancer risk. 

nuclear power plant workers

3. Rubber manufacturing 

People who work in factories that manufacture tires, rubber gloves, car parts etc. are exposed to high levels of chemicals, dust particles and chemical byproducts. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, several studies have shown increased cancer deaths linked to the exposure to carcinogens from rubber manufacturing. The toxins are mostly inhaled or absorbed through the skin. 

tire factory

4. Mechanics

Not only are mechanics exposed to oil and fumes on a daily basis, but the particular culprit in this case is asbestos, which is often found in brake fluid and clutch parts. Breathing in asbestos-filled air can lead to several cancers of the lung and chest.


5. Nail technicians 

Nail technicians are exposed to formaldehyde and titanium dioxide which, according to studies, can cause health problems. Formaldehyde, especially, is a carcinogen.

nail technician

6. Pilots 

Surprisingly, the risk has nothing to do with fuel emissions or mild radiation exposure. Research has shown that pilots have double the risk of suffering from melanoma, as they are exposed to higher levels of cosmic and UV rays than the general population. 

pilots in cockpit

7. Miners

Not only are miners regularly exposed to asbestos, but underground they regularly come into contact with uranium and radon, which can increase their risk of cancer. 

underground miner

Your rights in the workplace 

According to CANSA, the South African Cancer registrar doesn’t differentiate between cancers; therefore, there are no specific statistics available for occupational cancers in South Africa.

But this doesn’t mean that occupational cancers are not recognised. CANSA says the following: “While individuals in the South African workplace are protected by staunch legislation, including the Occupational Health and Safety Act, the South African Hazardous Substances Act, as well as The Asturias Declaration, the South African Institute for Occupational Health also helps in informing and advising workers about safe and healthy working environments.

How to reduce your risk of cancer

Although it can be difficult to reduce exposure to harmful substances or change your career, there are ways to take control and reduce your cancer risk:

  • Know your rights in the workplace by talking to your HR.
  • Know what toxins you are being exposed to daily.
  • Strengthen your health by following a healthy lifestyle outside of work.
  • Take particularly good care of yourself by regularly checking for any physical changes. Consult your doctor immediately should there be changes in your health.

Image credit: iStock

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