Occupational Carcinogens

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Carcinogens are chemicals, substances, mixtures or agents that cause cancer or increase the risk of developing cancer. Workers may develop cancer when exposed to carcinogens at work. These carcinogens are referred to as occupational carcinogens.

Occupational Carcinogens

There are many workplaces in Prince Edward Island that should be aware of the exposure to carcinogens. The Occupational Cancer Research Centre in Canada published a report called the Burden of Occupational Cancer (2019) that highlights the thirteen occupational carcinogens that contribute the most to the cancer burden in Canada. These carcinogens are:

  • Solar ultraviolent (UV) radiation;
  • Asbestos;
  • Diesel engine exhaust;
  • Silica (crystalline);
  • Welding fumes, nickel compounds and chromium (VI) compounds;
  • Radon;
  • Second-hand smoke;
  • Work at night (including rotating and night shift work);
  • Polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs);
  • Arsenic; and
  • Benzene.

There are several factors that affect how likely a substance will cause cancer such as:

  • How the carcinogen enters the body;
  • How much you are exposed to (the amount or dose entering the body);
  • How long you are exposed;
  • The characteristics of the substance (if it has the ability to cause cancer);
  • How the body processes the substance (for example if the substance is changed into another substance that may be more or less harmful);
  • Biological variations (such as how susceptible an individual is to develop the disease); and
  • Other variables, such as lifestyle habits (such as smoking, or drinking alcohol).

Examples of Carcinogens and Prevention Measures

Solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation: Solar UV radiation is linked to skin melanoma and non-melanoma skin cancers. Many workers are exposed to solar UV radiation including those in the agriculture, forestry, fishing, and construction industries. To reduce the risks, try to work where there is natural shade, or use shade structures. Workplaces can also schedule shifts to begin before or after the hours of 11 am-3 pm peak UV hours, move the tasks indoors if possible, use of clothing and sunscreen (with a sun protection factor (SPF) of 30 or greater) to protect skin, and provide training about the UV radiation.

Asbestos: Although asbestos mines were closed in 2012 and the use of asbestos was banned in Canada in 2018, asbestos can still be found in insulation, building materials in older buildings, brake linings, and certain imported products. Inhaling asbestos fibres can cause lung cancer and mesothelioma (cancer of the lining of lungs and other organs). Employers, contractors, and owners all have responsibilities to make sure that exposure to asbestos is prevented and work is undertaken using specific procedures. Please see the asbestos topic for more information.

Diesel engine exhaust: Diesel engine exhaust has been linked to lung and bladder cancer (and also to respiratory effects and cardiovascular health issues). Those who drive or work near diesel engine vehicles (trucks, buses, firetrucks) or heavy equipment (tractor, construction equipment), as well as those in the transportation and warehousing industries may be exposed. Workplaces can help control exposures by reducing engine idling, using adequate ventilation when in an enclosed space, performing regular engine and vehicle maintenance, and using job rotation to reduce time near diesel engines.

Silica (crystalline): Silica is associated with lung cancer. It is often found in manufacturing, construction, metal repair and maintenance services, transportation, and warehousing industries. Workplaces can reduce exposure by using alternative products, ventilation (with dust collection methods), and high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filters or wet sweeping methods for clean up.

Welding fumes: The composition of welding fumes depends on the metals being welded and coatings on metals. Welding fumes generally consist of metallic oxides of iron, lead, nickel, chromium (VI) and cadmium. Welding fumes are associated with lung cancers. Welders, workers nearby welders (machinists, sheet metal workers), and construction workers are often exposed. Please see the welding topic for more information.

Employer duties

As a general duty, employers are responsible for taking all reasonable precautions to protect the health and safety of workers and others who may be at or near their workplace.

Please see the duties of employers topic for more information.

The following general tips can help workers work safely with a carcinogen:

  • Consult the safety data sheet (SDS) for information about the hazards and necessary precautions for the specific product you are using.
  • Understand all of the hazards associated with the product, including additional health concerns (e.g., short-term health effects or irritation), reactivity and flammability.
  • Eliminate or substitute the product for one that is less harmful, if possible.
  • Make sure engineering controls (e.g., ventilation) are operating. Closed handling systems may be necessary to prevent the release of the product (dust, mist, vapour, gas) into the workplace.
  • Use the smallest quantity possible.
  • Design task and shift schedules to help minimize exposure times.
  • Educate and train workers about the risk of occupational cancer.
  • Wear personal protective equipment if the risks cannot be controlled by other methods.


Workers must:

  • Follow safe work practices specified by your employer.
  • Wear the appropriate personal protective equipment specified for the job. This equipment may include respiratory protection and chemical protective clothing, such as an apron and gloves, made from materials that protect against the products being handled.
  • Report ventilation failures, leaks, or spills to your supervisor immediately.
  • Understand and practice emergency procedures so that you know what to do in case of a spill or other emergency.
In general terms, “reasonable precautions” refers to the care, caution, or action a reasonable person is expected to take under similar circumstances.

R.S.P.E.I. 1988, c. O-1.01

Section 12 Duties of employers

12. (1) An employer shall ensure

(a) that every reasonable precaution is taken to protect the occupational health and safety of persons at or near the workplace;

(b) that any item, device, material, equipment or machinery provided for the use of workers at a workplace is properly maintained, and is properly equipped with the safety features or devices, as recommended by the manufacturer or required by the regulations;

(c) that such information, instruction, training, supervision and facilities are provided as are necessary to ensure the occupational health and safety of the workers;

(d) that workers and supervisors are familiar with occupational health or safety hazards at the workplace;

(e) that workers are made familiar with the proper use of all safety features or devices, equipment and clothing required for their protection; and

(f) that the employer's undertaking is conducted so that workers are not exposed to occupational health or safety hazards as a result of the undertaking.

(2) An employer shall

(a) consult and cooperate with the joint occupational health and safety committee or the representative, as applicable;

(b) cooperate with any person performing a duty or exercising a power conferred by this Act or the regulations;

(c) provide such additional training of committee members as may be prescribed by the regulations;

(d) comply with this Act and the regulations and ensure that workers at the workplace comply with this Act and the regulations; and

(e) where an occupational health and safety policy or occupational health and safety program is required under this Act, establish the policy or program.

(3) An employer shall establish and implement as a policy, in accordance with the regulations, measures to prevent and investigate occurrences of harassment in the workplace.

[S.P.E.I. 2018, c. 45, s. 3]

Section 16 Duties of worker

16. (1) A worker, while at work, shall

(a) take every reasonable precaution to protect the worker's own occupational health and safety and that of other persons at or near the workplace;

(b) cooperate with the employer and with the other workers to protect the worker's own occupational health and safety and that of other persons at or near the workplace;

(c) wear or use such individual protective equipment as is required by this Act and the regulations;

(d) consult and cooperate with the committee or representative, if any;

(e) cooperate with any person performing a duty or exercising a power conferred by this Act or the regulations; and

(f) comply with this Act and the regulations and any policy or program established by an employer pursuant to this Act or the regulations.

(2) Where a worker believes that any item, device, material, equipment or machinery, condition or aspect of the workplace is or may be dangerous to the worker's occupational health or safety or that of other persons at or near the workplace, the worker

(a) shall immediately report it to a supervisor;

(b) shall, where the matter is not remedied to the worker's satisfaction, report it to the committee or the representative, if any; and

(c) may, where the matter is not remedied to the worker's satisfaction after the worker reports it in accordance with clauses (a) and (b), report it to an officer.

(3) Clause (2)(b) does not apply in respect of a complaint of harassment in the workplace.

[S.P.E.I. 2018, c. 45, s. 4]