Blog Author: Carolyn Gotay, PhD Posted: Friday, March 2, 2012 - 12:47
The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified 107 agents, mixtures, and exposure situations as carcinogenic to humans, such as asbestos (all forms), benzene, cadmium, ethylene oxide, silica, and ionizing radiation including radon.
The Workplace Hazardous Materials Information System  provides workers with information on hazardous products through product labels, material safety data sheets (MSDS), and worker education programs. This supports BC workers’ “right to know” about potential dangers in the workplace.
But what do workers know?
In spite of these efforts, our recent study with workers in BC found that most workers had limited awareness about their exposure to potentially harmful products and materials.
The “Workplace Awareness and Knowledge Study” (WAKS), a pilot project that I led, explored what workers understand about their risks of encountering harmful exposures at work, and what they know about reducing their exposure risks. Even though BC workers have a “right to know” about hazardous materials in the workplace, these regulations are not consistently adopted or enforced. Ensuring worker well-being needs to be a priority.
Does training work?
Traditional work-site training programs and interventions have attempted to provide knowledge and information, but with limited success. We found that product labels, MSDS, and worker education are presented in a high-level, technical manner.
What about workers who find the information confusing?
Some workers may not be highly educated, may not read well, may not speak English well, or may prefer information presented orally or using visual images. And more often than not, these materials are not available when they are needed most: at the point of toxic exposure.
Setting priorities for future action
Our WAKS project demonstrated that workers found it difficult to understand the MSDS and other materials. Workers also reported that these materials are not easily accessible at “point of contact” when the information is needed. We need new ways to increase workers’ knowledge and to encourage their use of appropriate safeguards.
We will expand on the WAKS project findings at a 1-day workshop on 6 March 2012. We will look for solutions to help workers’ reduce their exposure to carcinogens. The workshop, Reducing exposures to occupational carcinogens: Identifying priorities for workplace health and safety , is organized by the CCS-UBC Cancer Prevention Centre and funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research.
One solution may include social media and smart phones to help workers protect themselves. Thirty-one percent of online Canadians own a smart phone, and this percentage is predicted to grow. Smart phone use is particularly widespread in younger people, who make up a large proportion of employees in BC’s industries. Workers have constant access to their phones, which could provide a portable, “on-call,” interactive, multimedia resource, plus links to additional information.
How can we move toward better workplace health and safety in BC? We believe that through collaborations between workers, unions, industry, policymakers, and academics, we will find opportunities to prevent workplace exposure to carcinogens. Ultimately, we want to prevent cancer and improve workers’ health.
Carolyn Gotay, PhD  is professor and Canadian Cancer Society chair in cancer primary prevention at the School of Population and Public Health, Faculty of Medicine, University of British Columbia, and the BC Cancer Agency.