Workers’ exposure survey on cancer risk factors in Europe

Work-related cancer is one of the biggest occupational health problems in Europe. One way to address the issue is the provision of current and reliable data on the exposure of workers to risks that can lead to the disease. This is why EU-OSHA conducted a Workers’ Exposure Survey on cancer risk factors in Europe (WES).

Goal of the survey

The survey aims to better identify the cancer risk factors responsible for most of the exposures, providing an accurate and comprehensive overview that can contribute to preventive measures, awareness-raising and policy-making, ultimately helping in the fight against occupational cancer.

This activity intends to fill an important information gap that was identified during the different reviews of the Carcinogens, Mutagens or Reprotoxic substances Directive (CMRD).

Preparatory work for WES started in 2020 and the survey has been since developed, tested and conducted with a random sample of thousands of working individuals in six EU Member States: Germany, Ireland, Spain, France, Hungary and Finland. The questionnaires were developed to estimate probable exposure of workers to 24 known cancer risk factors, which include industrial chemicals, process-generated substances and mixtures, along with physical risk factors.

Impact of the survey

Participants of the survey were randomly sampled in each country and answered detailed questions about the tasks they completed at work during the last working week and about the prevention measures applied. Based on their responses, the probability of exposure to cancer risk factors was automatically estimated using an innovative tool called Occupational Integrated Database Exposure Assessment System (OccIDEAS).

With the survey information, EU-OSHA is able to provide better statistical data and develop insights for evidence-based policy-making. This survey is expected to improve the protection against dangerous substances and to help in the reduction of work-related cancer cases. It can contribute to several activities by:

The data collected can also be used to develop and feed monitoring tools of OSH, which can be accessed by the public. Reports with analysis and factsheets are being developed and published to make information more widely available.

Overall, WES is an important data source for policy-makers, researchers and intermediaries, who can prioritise and take timely and appropriate actions to reduce work-related cancer.

A look at the survey’s initial findings

The first results of WES identified solar ultraviolet (UV) radiation, diesel engine exhaust emissions, benzene, respirable crystalline silica (RCS) and formaldehyde as the most frequent probable occupational exposures among the 24 cancer risk factors analysed. 

The survey also provides information on workers having multiple exposures during their last working week, meaning exposure to at least two cancer risk factors, which do not necessarily occur at the same time or through the same work process. The data shows that more than 60% of the workers in mining and quarrying activities and in construction activities had multiple exposures. The survey detected that workers in a micro or small-sized workplace (with fewer than 50 employees) were 1.3 times more likely to be exposed to one or more cancer risk factors than those working in medium or large companies. EU-OSHA has also analysed data on the different circumstances of exposure to each risk factor. 

WES was conducted by trained local interviewers between September 2022 and February 2023 using CATI (Computer Assisted Telephone Interview). After completion of the fieldwork and quality control stages, 24,402 valid interviews were made available for analysis. The survey population includes individuals aged 15 years or more, working in all sectors of economic activity in the six EU Member States mentioned. The study includes self-employed individuals and employees in organisations of all sizes. The questions were translated from English into the respective national languages.