Occupational exposure

Occupational exposure occurs when a person is exposed to potentially harmful chemical, physical or biological substances at work. People who work with cancer-causing substances (carcinogens) on the job may be exposed to much higher levels of these substances than they would be at home or in their community. Since higher exposure can lead to greater cancer risk, eliminating or reducing exposure is important in the primary prevention of cancer.

Current scientific evidence suggests that being exposed to cancer-causing substances on the job is responsible for a small percentage of cancers. But for those workers, their exposure and risk of cancer is much higher than the average person’s.


Our position

The Canadian Cancer Society strongly supports that Canadian workers should not be exposed to carcinogens in the workplace. Where exposure cannot be eliminated, it should be reduced to the lowest possible level. We also believe this will require the following commitments by employers, governments and individuals.

Employers must:

  • educate workers about cancer and inform them about their exposure to carcinogens in the workplace 
  • eliminate or reduce exposure to carcinogens by removing them or by choosing an alternative substance 
  • establish processes and make changes to the workplace so that workers’ exposure to hazardous substances, including carcinogens, is minimized. The use of personal protective clothing or equipment should be a last resort 

Governments must develop evidence-informed legislation and regulations to protect workers.

Individuals have the right (under provincial, territorial and federal health and safety legislation) to refuse work that exposes them to known and highly suspected carcinogens.

What you can do
If you’re concerned about exposure to a potential cancer-causing substance 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 Service at 1-888-939-3333.

Information about specific workplace exposures

Canadian workers can be exposed to numerous substances or situations that have been shown to cause cancer or are suspected of causing cancer. The following pages have information on some specific exposures and how to protect yourself:

Suggested links for more information

Reducing occupational exposures
These organizations work to promote the health and safety of workers, which includes making sure they are protected from occupational exposure to carcinogenic substances.

Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety
National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, CDC 
Health and Safety Executive (UK)
World Health Organization – Global Plan of Action on Workers’ Health

Information about workers’ rights in Canada
Find out about your rights concerning health, safety and compensation for work-related injury and illness. 

Association of Workers’ Compensation Boards of Canada
Canadian Labour Congress 
Canadian Labour Code – Section 125.1 outlines the duties of employers to protect employees from exposure to hazardous substances

Research about occupational exposures
These groups do research on occupational exposures and their impact on the cancer burden in Canada and internationally. 

Occupational Cancer Research Centre 
CAREX Canada 
International Agency for Research on Cancer 
National Toxicology Program (US)