October 25, 2019
European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA)
Cancer is not visible immediately – how to prevent hazards at work?

In Poland, cancer is a growing health, social and economic problem. In 2016, over 164,000 of new cases and almost 100,000 deaths due to them were recorded. Compared to 2015, it is about 1,000 more cases. One of the most common causes of cancer is exposure to carcinogenic chemicals in work and human life enviroments. The effects of exposure to carcinogens are not immediately apparent. They can occur several dozen years after the first contact with these factors – depending on the type of cancer, this period may be 25 or even 45 years. For this reason, the occupational cause of cancer is often overlooked by the diagnostic practitioners and employees themselves.

Bearing in mind disturbing statistics on cancer and based on the results of research of the European Commission updates the recommendations on the protection of employees against threats, including on the part of the relevant carcinogens, determining the values of the acceptable results taken into account in the composition for carcinogenic substances, the so-called BOELVs, applicable to all EU searches. Three new directives amending recommendations 2004/37/EC set BOELVs values for 24 carcinogens. At the beginning of 2020, to the ordinance of the Minister of Family, Labor and Social Policy on matters of maximum allowable concentrations and intensities of harmful substances for health at work requires the use of new or variable NDS values for all chemicals with fixed BOELVs values.


Occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals is not only the cause of cancer, but also respiratory, circulatory or nervous system diseases, and allergies. These are the most important reasons for sick leave and often also permanent inability to work. The consequence is high social costs and a serious burden on the state budget for treatment, rehabilitation and payment of financial benefits. Meanwhile, the number of chemicals used in work processes is still growing. That is why it is so important to maintain and comply with the principles of health and safety at work – therefore from 21 to 25 October in the EU countries European Week for Safety and Health at Work is celebrated.

While everyone can be periodically exposed to carcinogens in everyday life –  certain jobs and professions cause that this exposure occurs every day for many years, and hazardous substances occur in the work environment usually in higher concentrations, as well.


– Working exposed to chemical substances can cause changes in the employee's state of health. Employees of up to 38% of enterprises in the European Union are exposed to chemicals and biological agents. This can lead to many serious diseases. All the more important is the use of appropriate prevention measures. Workplace concentration limits should be adhered to, the use of carcinogenic, mutagenic, reprotoxic or endocrine substances in the workplace should be restricted, and hazardous chemicals replaced with those that are at least less hazardous to worker health. It is also important to use the substances in closed systems or adequate ventilation and to introduce organizational measures, e.g. reduction of working time in exposure to chemical substances. In this regard, much depends on employers and health and safety service. Employees themselves should also ensure compliance with the principles of health and safety at work and the correct use of personal protective equipment that effectively protects health and life. The European Safety and Health at Work Week, which is celebrated every year, aims to raise employees' and employers' awareness of work-related hazards as well as ways to protect and prevent problems – states dr Małgorzata Pośniak from the Central Institute for Labor Protection - National Research Institute.

Carcinogens, like other chemicals, are absorbed into the employee's body most often through the respiratory system and skin. Ingestion system is usually associated with imprudent behavior of employees, e.g., eating meals or smoking cigarettes without first washing their hands, sometimes even in a workplace with a carcinogen.


– Carcinogens - even in very small amounts - can pose health risks. The higher the concentration of carcinogenic substances and the longer the exposure, the greater the risk of cancer. In some occupational situations, employees are exposed to two or more carcinogens at the same time. There may then be a synergistic effect between the components of the mixture and its effect may be stronger than the sum of the effects of each of the factors dr Małgorzata Pośniak points out.


Examples of carcinogenic substances are, among others:

  • asbestos – material used in construction, still present despite applicable regulations prohibiting its use. Building owners have an obligation to remove asbestos by the end of 2032, and those involved in this process may be at risk;
  • aromatic amines, benzene, vinyl chloride, formaldehyde – organic chemicals used in industry;
  • cytostatics – chemotherapy drugs;
  • thorotrast – substance used as contrast in x-ray analysis;
  • polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (anthracene, benzopyrene), aromatic amines, nitrosamines – substances contained, e.g., in cigarette smoke;
  • aflatoxin - a toxin produced by mold
  • arsen, chrom(VI), kadm, nikiel – heavy metals and their inorganic compounds found in metallurgy, welding fumes and engine exhaust gases
  • crystalline silica – released in work processes
  • wood dust – occurring among others in the wood processing sector

Every year in the 43rd calendar week, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) and its partners in all EU countries celebrate the European Safety and Health at Work Week. The aim of the European Week for Safety and Health at Work is to increase awareness about the safety and health of employees, promote an active approach to prevention and the correct assessment of occupational risk. This year's European Week supports the 2018-2019 information campaign "Hazardous substances under control".


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