Cancer and construction: Key points

Occupational cancer is caused by significant exposure to carcinogens in the workplace, often over a prolonged period. The causes of cancer (carcinogens) are many and varied. They can be solid substances, liquids, mixtures, vapours, gases, dusts or even radiation. Without adequate control, you can be affected by breathing them in, absorbing them through the skin and accidental swallowing. There is usually a considerable period of time (often more than 10 years and up to 40 or 50 years) between these exposures and any ill-health symptoms developing.

HSE commissioned detailed research into the burden of occupational cancer in Great Britain caused by past exposures. Now published, this research highlights significant risks in construction. Below are some key points about these risks and why they are so important.

The big picture

The research looked at the number of people diagnosed with occupational cancer (registrations) in 2004 and who died from occupational cancer in 2005. These are estimates based on past exposures up to 50 years ago. There have been many changes in the construction industry over this time to work methods and materials/substances. It estimated that:

  • there were about 13,500 new cancer registrations and 8,000 new cancer deaths
  • the construction industry has the largest burden of occupational cancers amongst the industrial sectors. Over 40% of the occupational cancer deaths and cancer registrations were from the industry
  • many more construction workers were killed by occupational cancer compared to accidents. It is estimated that for every fatal accident in 2012-13, approximately 100 construction workers died from a work-related cancer
  • most cancers in construction were lung cancers caused by exposure to asbestos and silica
  • a significant number of lung (and other) cancers are also linked to Diesel Engine Exhaust Emissions (DEEE) and work as a painter
  • solar radiation and Polycyclic Aromatic Hydrocarbons (PAHs) from coal tars and pitches were responsible for an additional 1,300 cancer registrations in the construction industry, these were linked to non-melanoma skin cancers
  • a much smaller number of registrations and deaths were linked to a number of other substances including lead and wood dust

Construction industry cancer registrations / deaths in (2004/5) compared to all occupational cancer registrations (2004)

Graph showing causes of cancer registrations and deaths

Work is ongoing to see how subsequent changes in the industry might impact on the potential future number of people suffering from occupational cancer. Organisations are also taking positive steps to tackle occupational disease.

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Updated 2023-11-21