Cancer data needs to start a discussion on effective controls

Cover of Cancer Occupational reportThe Cancer Council of Western Australia has released a report (not yet available online)that states:

“The number of occupationally caused cancers compensated each year equates to less than eight per cent of the expected number.” (Executive Summary)

This is an extraordinary statistic but consistent with the history of occupational health and safety (OHS) statistics where the core data originates from compensation figures rather than incident figures.  Cancer has always been a challenge in this area as it can manifest years after exposure or not at all. But this report also provides important data, and a challenge, for OHS professionals and business owners as

“Occupational exposures to carcinogens are estimated to cause over 5,000 new cases of cancer in Australia each year.” (Executive Summary)

The report has an excellent discussion on why such statistics are estimates and the unreliability of previous data in Australia and overseas but there is only a short, but important, discussion about risk and hazard controls – the principle focus for OHS professionals. Continue reading “Cancer data needs to start a discussion on effective controls”

OHS will eventually need to address the big climate change impacts

The latest edition of the Journal of Occupational Medicine (JOM) (Vol 61. No 5 Aug 2011) includes a short article on the occupational impact of climate change, an issue that must be addressed in the work context and one that places additional challenges for those involved with safe design.

The JOM article lists the following hazard categories that are likely to affect workplaces and activities:

  • “Increased ambient temperature (global warming) and resultant climate changes,
  • Increased air pollution (resulting from increased temperatures, ozone levels and airborne particles),
  • Ultraviolet (UV) radiation,
  • Extremes of weather (resulting from global climate change),
  • Vector-borne diseases and expanded habitat,
  • Industrial transitions and emerging technologies,
  • Changes to built environment.”

It is unlikely that employers will try to tackle climate change through OHS considerations as there are far more important economic pressures.  OHS, in this context, can only be reactive but several of the issues mentioned above are likely to substantially change work methods and planning. Continue reading “OHS will eventually need to address the big climate change impacts”

Workplace skin cancer risk remains high

The July 2004 edition of SafetyATWORK magazine contained an interview with Sam Holt the CEO of Australian company Skin Patrol.  The fascinating service of Skin Patrol was that they travelled the outback of Australia with a mobile skin cancer testing unit.  That is a big area to cover but with the increasing incidence of skin cancer and the acceptance of ultraviolet exposure as an OHS problem, the service seemed timely.

(The interview is available HERE)

SafetyAtWorkBlog was contacted by Skin Patrol in early December 2009 as it was releasing the findings of a survey of 1,000 outdoor workers.  Its survey has these key findings:

  • 2.5 times the national reported incidence of malignant melanoma
  • One in 10 patients had a lesion highly suspicious of skin cancer
  • 26% of patients were diagnosed with moderate to severe sun damage
  • 70% of patients diagnosed with a lesion suspicious of skin cancer were aged 40 years or greater
  • Over 90% of workers who attended the Skin Patrol clinic because they were worried about a particular spot or the condition of their skin had not had their skin checked in the past 12 months prior to the onsite clinic.

The company’s media release also states:

“The incidence of melanoma for all Australians currently sits at 46 in 100,000, however for those that work outdoors that figure jumps to 100 in 100,000.”

The risks from exposure to ultraviolet are well established and our understanding of the risks have changed considerably within one generation.  The Australian culture has changed to one of sun-worshipping to one where the wearing of hats is enforced at school, hard hats have wide brim attachments, and outdoor work is undertaken in long pants and long-sleeved shirts.  Occupational control measures have been introduced.

Of course, particularly in the construction industry, principle contractors still struggle in a getting compliance with the UV-protection policies but that’s the case for many OHS policies.

Skin cancer risks through high UV exposure are well-established OHS Issues but the reality still does not mean that controlling the hazard is easy to manage.  Culturally we still want to have a tanned complexion even if it is sprayed on.  Tanned skin is still synonymous with good health even though the medical evidence differs.

Skin cancer risks in the workplace are simply another of those workplace hazards that are ahead of the non-workplace culture and that safety professionals need to manage.  The attraction with this hazard is that there is no disputing the evidence.

Kevin Jones

Greens keep fighting ANSTO on nuclear safety

The Australian Greens Senator Ludlam is not resting on his “wins” against the Australian Nuclear Science & Technology Organisation.  On 22 October 2009, Ludlam issued a media statement.  Some quotes are below:

“If ANSTO believes its record is clean, it should make public the incident reports rather than waiting for the issues to be raised in Senate committees,” said Greens spokesperson on nuclear issues, Senator Scott Ludlam.

Good point. If one places this incident in the realm of workplace safety, the incident still would not become public.  OHS authorities usually only make public incident details after prosecution for, probably, sound legal reasons.  On OHS principles, issues that have relevance to other worksites should be communicated and, in some cases and industries, safety alerts are issued, but should a public notice be made of each incident that is reported? Probably not as disinterest and complacency would soon emerge.

“The ANSTO statement confuses the issue by referring to imaginary claims of a ‘spill’ and seeks to downplay an incident by noting, “The quantity of medical isotope in the vial was 1/10 of a teaspoon”.  The quantity of material exposed is irrelevant: as ANSTO well knows, it is the level of radioactivity of a given sample that matters, not how many teaspoons may have been dropped.

Agreed to some extent.  Quantity does not equal risk.

“ANSTO is also aware that there is no safe level of ionising radiation… as confirmed by the National Academies of Science BEIR VII report on “Health Risks from Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation“.

There are umpteen instances of arguments over “safe levels” in OHS and environmental management.  It is likely that the Australian Greens will become more vocal when the determination of “reasonably practicable” becomes more widely applied throughout Australia.  Exposure levels are arguments that cannot be won in the short term and vary considerably as research continues


“ANSTO’s whistleblower policy states that disclosure of threats to the health, safety and welfare of staff, and/or the general public is in the public interest.”

The environmental sector has relied on whistleblowers for decades – Silkwood, Brockovich, being obvious examples – or at least, relied on those who persist or become obsessed.

The call here by the Greens is likely to have many companies reassessing the application of their whistleblower policy, should they have one.  OHS doesn’t usually work through such a policy but it is an approach that may require reanalysis in line with the expansion of OHS law into the traditional areas of public liability.

One would hope that a corporation’s sense of social responsibility would be applied in such worker and public health matters.  Given the secrecy over nuclear power leaks and spills at England’s Sellafield plant, an important part of England’s weapons program for many decades, the Greens’ suspicion can be easily understood.

Kevin Jones

Accusations of poor nuclear safety

Australia does not (yet) have nuclear power but its most prominent nuclear reactor is at Lucas Heights in Sydney.  On 21 October 2009, the Australian Greens Senator Scott Ludlam was told that several incidents had occurred at the reactor since 2008.

According to a media release from the Greens, Australian Nuclear Science and Technology Organisation (ANSTO) revealed that

  • “A major recent event involving a vial being dropped and left unreported for up to three hours leading to exposure by workers.
  • An internal audit found gross deficiencies in safety procedures.
  • Management was unaware some workers present during the incident had not completed OHS induction training or a radiation safety course.
  • Procedures required upgrading since the incident.
  • Other incidents have occurred since and procedures are constantly being upgraded.”

A short AAP article on the comments is also available online.  The article is likely to gain considerable media attention through the inclusion of the following comment

“A spokesman for Senator Ludlam told AAP that if safety procedures could not be followed at Australia’s nuclear reactor, “God help” Australia if ANSTO was put in charge of a full scale nuclear power facility.”

It seems unfair to put out this story without some response from ANSTO.  Late this afternoon ANSTO released a detailed response to the Greens claims and AAP story which it claims were full of inaccuracies.  Below are some extracts of the statement which is available here in full.

“No incident of the type reported took place at the OPAL reactor.  An incident did take place on 28 August 2008 at ANSTO’s radiopharmaceutical production facility.   This was not a spill and no staff were exposed to significant radiation doses.   The incident took place in a shielded manufacturing enclosure.”

“ANSTO acknowledges that conservative decision making was not used at the start of this incident. Procedures have improved since as acknowledged in the Greens’ press release.”

“The quantity of medical isotope in the vial was 1/10 of a teaspoon and when the vial was dislodged the worker initially attempted to retrieve it and notified his supervisor within 30 minutes of the initial incident.   The vial was finally retrieved after three hours.   Molybdenum-99 production did not continue following the incident.”

“Incident reporting is a standard practice in the radiopharmaceutical manufacturing environment.   Senator Ludlam appears to have confused the reporting of incidents with an assumption of these incidents being severe or hazardous to workers.  This is not the case.”

Nuclear issues always need to be taken seriously and, as with any incident, must be investigated appropriately.  The Greens have made, understandable, political mileage out of the information revealed in the Senate hearings.  The comments match the interests of its constituents and members.

What it also indicates is that Australia has yet to enter a nuclear energy debate that has already been experienced in Europe and elsewhere over the last thirty years or so.  As nuclear energy becomes an increasingly important option for Australia in response to climate change, the debate is likely to be furious.

Kevin Jones

Mobile phone cancer link still unclear

A new research study into the possible health effects if using a mobile phone remains inconclusive.  According to a report in the Journal of Clinical Oncology,

“The current study found that there is possible evidence linking mobile phone use to an increased risk of tumors from a meta-analysis of low-biased case-control studies.  Prospective cohort studies providing a higher level of evidence are needed.”

Basically this is saying there is a bit of evidence but more research is needed.  In the context of cancer risks from using mobile phones, status quo remains.

Although only the abstract of the research is available online for free, a long discussion is available at Australia’s ABC website. The significant issue in this article is that “high quality” research found evidence of a possible cancer link and “low-quality” research found none.

If one is not a medical researcher, as SafetyAtWorkBlog is not, this research provides no practical guidance for the reduction of risk.  In fact, it goes some way to fostering the layman’s suspicion of research.

If one has the task of minimising the (perceived) risk of receiving cancer for workers using mobile telephones, this study is useless.  In reducing the increasing concerns from staff about this occupational hazard, this study is useless.  The research does indicate that, at least, research is continuing but it adds nothing to the state of OHS knowledge needed to manage the potential hazard.

“Absence of evidence is not evidence of absence”* seems to fit the situation of mobile phones and cancer.

Kevin Jones

*  Both Carl Sagan and Donald Rumsfeld have used this phrase.  Allocate credit to whichever you choose

Verify website data

At SafetyatWorkBlog the use or reuse of material is carefully considered.  Some articles are not proceeded with, or media used, because of copyright, restrictions or cost.  No content is used from websites without permission or without referring back to the original source and providing hyperlinks if possible.  An example of how internet information can go wrong occurred earlier this month in Australia.

On 2 October 2009 the Safety Institute of Australia advised its members through its homepage that the Cancer Council, one of its strategic partners, is

“is gearing up to launch three new workplace guides as part of National Skin Cancer Week in November.”

The guides are listed on the SIA website:

  • Skin cancer and outdoor work: a guide for employers
  • Skin cancer and outdoor work: a guide for working safely in the sun brochure
  • SunSmart and iCourses ‘Working safely in the sun’ online training course

www-sia-org-au_news_updates_sun-protect-workplace-announce20091002-htmlThe odd thing was that the first guide listed was published in January 2007.  The second seems to be a companion leaflet for the guide for employers.  They are not new and are not being launched in November 2009.

When the anomaly was brought to the attention of the Cancer Council advised SafetyAtWorkBlog that their website had not been updated for a long time and that the information was out of date.  Not only should this have been obvious from the age of the publications listed but the page said the guides were to be launched on Tuesday November 20.  In 2009 November 20 is a Thursday.  The advice on the SIA site is based on old information.

(A slightly more recent policy statement for “sun protection in the workplace” is available elsewhere on the Cancer Council website)

It is very important, particularly in OHS where safety advice can change frequently, that any information taken from the internet is verified, especially if one is putting one’s name to it as the SIA’s CEO did in this instance.

The Sunsmart guidances produced by the Cancer Council still contain solid advice but if the risk of skin cancer or the hazard of working in direct sunlight is relevant to your worksites, make sure that the safety guidance is current and do not just rely on one information source.  In this instance, see what advice  the local OHS authority can provide, particular in the couple of months preceding summer.

If you run your own OHS information website or intranet, be extra careful when using other organisation’s information………..and check the dates of the information.

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