Protect yourself

How do I know if my health is at risk at work?

Do you work in an environment that puts you at risk of cancer? This could include working with harmful chemicals or being exposed to radiation. Even if you don’t work directly with harmful substances as part of your job, being around them may put you at a higher risk of cancer.

Assessing your risk

Any substance that is known to cause cancer is called a carcinogen. You are at highest risk when you breathe in carcinogens or absorb them through your skin.

Your level of risk depends on:

  • how often and how long your body is exposed to the carcinogen 

  • how powerful the carcinogen is 

  • whether you are exposed to other risk factors 

  • how prone you are to certain types of cancer

Some workers may be more likely than others to be exposed to carcinogens, including:

  • construction workers
  • woodworkers
  • miners
  • farmers
  • workers in the chemical, rubber or dye industries
  • medical radiation technicians
  • firefighters

The type of carcinogens these workers may be around include:

What governments and employers should do to protect workers

The Canadian Cancer Society strongly believes that Canadian workers should not be exposed to carcinogens in the workplace. When exposure cannot be eliminated, it should be reduced to the lowest possible level. We believe this is not just the responsibility of workers. Governments and employers must do their part.
To protect workers, governments must ensure that workplace regulations and legislation are based on the best available evidence. Workers must continue to have the right to refuse work that exposes them to known and highly suspected carcinogens.
Employers must let workers know if they are being exposed to carcinogens at work. Workers exposed to carcinogens must be offered education and training programs on how to reduce their risk.
Employers must make sure that products are labelled and that each product has a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS) that workers can easily find and use.
Employers must eliminate or reduce exposure to carcinogens by removing them or by using a different substance.
Employers must set up processes and make changes to the workplace so that workers’ exposure to carcinogens is minimized. Using personal protective clothing or equipment should only be a last option.

What you can do to be safe at work

Workplaces are safer today than they were in the past. Workplace health and safety practices have greatly reduced or eliminated exposure to harmful substances, including carcinogens. 

But you still may be exposed to hazardous substances at work. Here are some important ways to protect yourself:

Follow workplace health and safety instructions when using, storing and disposing of hazardous materials.

Materials in the workplace have a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). This document gives information on the potential hazards, health effects of exposure and how to work safely with the product. These guidelines are printed on the packaging and are posted in the workplace. 

Canada’s Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System (WHMIS) identifies the hazards of a chemical and provides information on the safe use of hazardous materials. WHMIS information is provided through product labels, MSDS information and worker education programs.

Use all the protective clothing and equipment provided by your employer to help minimize the risk of exposure to potentially harmful substances.
Participate in training programs and use this information to work safely with hazardous materials.
Tell your employers when labels on containers have been accidentally removed or if the label is no longer readable.
Report accidental exposure immediately.

If you're concerned about your workplace

You have the right (under provincial, territorial and federal health and safety legislation) to refuse work that exposes you to known and highly suspected carcinogens. If you’re concerned about exposure to a potential carcinogen or would like more information about potential hazards in your workplace, contact the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety or the Canadian Cancer Society’s Cancer Information Helpline at 1-888-939-3333.

The Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC) in Canada was set up to increase knowledge on the causes and prevention of work-related cancers. For more information, visit the OCRC website.