Occupational Cancers and Workplace Exposure

Millions of Americans have experienced workplace exposure to carcinogens but were unaware of the danger. Only a small number of potentially hazardous substances used in manufacturing have been tested for safety. As a result, countless people are at risk of developing a job-related, long-term disease. Each year, thousands of people are diagnosed with occupational cancers like lung or bladder cancer, mesothelioma, or leukemia.

A mechanic working on a vehicle with the potential risk of asbestos exosure.

How Does Workplace Exposure Lead to Occupational Cancer?

Worldwide, occupational cancers are responsible for between three and six percent of all cancers. In the U.S., several federal organizations oversee the use of known carcinogens (i.e., substances that cause cancer) in manufacturing and commerce. However, less than two percent of chemicals used in American commercial production have been evaluated for safety by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC).

Certain careers are more at risk of hazardous exposure than others due to particular characteristics of their environment. For example, truck drivers and automotive mechanics have an increased risk of lung and bladder cancers caused by repeated inhalation of diesel exhaust.

In the U.S., cancer continues to be a deadly yet common disease. A range of factors affect a person’s risk of developing cancer (such as age, family medical history, personal habits, and exposure to cancer-causing agents). In recent decades, workplace exposure to hazardous sources has increased rates for certain types of cancer. Veterans may have encountered workplace exposure to carcinogens during their military service and/or in civilian careers.

Common Workplace Carcinogens

The IARC, Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) define a carcinogen as a substance reasonably linked to tumor growth through prolonged exposure. Thousands of chemical and physical agents are used to manufacture products, but only a fraction have been tested for their effects on humans.

Veterans who were diagnosed with mesothelioma may be eligible for VA compensation. To find out if you qualify, speak with a patient advocate today.

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Woman shakes hand with a couple.

The following carcinogens affect workers across an array of jobs. Exposure – without proper personal protective equipment (PPE) – could cause long-lasting diseases years later.

  • Arsenic
  • Asbestos
  • Benzene
  • Beryllium
  • Cadmium
  • Chlorinated solvents
  • Chromium
  • Coal tars and pitches
  • Coke oven emissions
  • Crystalline silica
  • Diesel exhaust
  • Dioxins
  • Formaldehyde
  • Ionizing radiation
  • Lead
  • Metalworking fluids
  • Nickel compounds
  • Paints and solvents
  • Pesticides
  • Wood dust

Who Is at Risk?

Each year, millions of workers are exposed to carcinogenic materials. In 2012 (the most recent year data is available), researchers estimated between 45,800 and 91,700 deaths were caused by past workplace exposure. Failure to protect employees in previous decades has since resulted in thousands of diagnoses of chronic illnesses every year.

Some at-risk workers include those in the following careers and industries:

  • Aerospace and atomic engineering
  • Animal workers
  • Ceramics
  • Construction
  • Electricians
  • Farmers
  • Firefighters
  • Food workers
  • Longshoremen
  • Manufacturing
  • Maritime
  • Metalworkers
  • Mining and non-metal mining
  • Painters
  • Truck drivers
  • Utility and powerhouse
  • Vehicle manufacture and repair
  • Welders

Types of Occupational Diseases

For most types of occupational disease, the main route of exposure is inhalation through the mouth or nose. In other cases, absorbing carcinogens through the skin leads to internal damage. Many inhalable particles produce similar symptoms in the respiratory system – complicating the diagnosis process.

Chronic Illness
Potential Causes
Asthma Asthma is the most common work-related lung disorder today. You may develop asthma (or experience worsened symptoms) after repeated lung irritation by a substance at work.
Bacterial lung infection Different than a viral infection spread through human contact, bacterial infections come from an environmental source like animal feces. Pneumonia may also occur among those who work around rapidly heated and cooled metal (such as welders) or cooling towers.
COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disorder) Smoking cigarettes is the primary cause of COPD. However, inhaling dusts or other small particles can lead to chronic bronchitis (i.e., a persistent cough that produces sputum).
Interstitial lung diseases (ILD) ILDs are often the easiest to link to workplace exposures and include silicosis (caused by inhaling crushed silica), asbestosis (from asbestos exposure), and coal worker’s pneumoconiosis.
Lung cancer Tumors that begin growing in the lungs have a variety of potential causes. Work-related lung cancer, however, may occur among employees who breathe in large amounts of carcinogens for prolonged periods.
Pleural disease Most pleural diseases caused by occupational exposure come from inhaling tiny asbestos fibers (sometimes too small to see). Ceramic refractory fibers may also cause inflammation in the lining of the chest cavity. Repeated inflammation can lead to tissue scarring, some cancers, and mesotheliomas.

Some diseases cause enough internal damage, over years or decades, to result in growing tumors. Consequently, it’s vital to your long-term health to report unusual symptoms to your doctor as soon as possible.

Treating Occupational Cancers

Generally, treatment for an occupational cancer depends on the patient’s overall health as well as their prognosis. Typical cancer therapies include surgery to remove as many tumors as possible, chemotherapy, and radiation. Chemo and radiotherapy may be used before or after treatment to either shrink tumors or kill off any that were too small to remove surgically. Targeted therapies and immunotherapies, new forms of cancer therapy, are also being administered to patients for whom standard treatments no longer work.

Veterans with mesothelioma can take action without affecting their benefits.

(833) 637-6838

A woman calling regarding her previous exposure to asbestos.

Time can make all the difference in treating cancer. Diagnosing it early (before it has spread to other organs) is often essential to effectively treating it. Speak with your primary care provider as soon as you’re able if you experience lasting symptoms of lung disease, like:

  • Abnormal breathing patterns
  • Chest pain or tightness
  • Coughing
  • Shortness of breath

Options for Veterans

Anyone who has been diagnosed with a life-altering illness like mesothelioma may be able to seek legal compensation from the company (or companies) responsible for their exposure. A qualified attorney can guide you through the process of connecting your illness to your history of workplace exposure.

For veterans who qualify for VA benefits like health care coverage, additional treatment options may also be available. Moreover, if you’re occupational disease is linked to a career you held during your military service, you may qualify for disability compensation.

Meet with a VA Representative if you’ve already been diagnosed with a type of occupational disease for more information about disability benefits. Or talk with your VA health care provider about symptoms you believe may be related to past workplace exposure.

Author: Destiny Bezrutczyk – Last Edited: October 18, 2023


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2012). Occupational Cancer. Retrieved on April 21, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/cancer/

Christiani, David C. (2020). Occupational Exposures and Lung Cancer. Retrieved on April 21, 2021, from https://www.atsjournals.org/doi/full/10.1164/rccm.202004-1404ED

European Lung White Book. (n.d.). Occupational lung diseases. Retrieved on April 22, 2021, from https://www.erswhitebook.org/chapters/occupational-lung-diseases/

Institution of Occupational Safety and Health. (n.d.). Occupational cancer. Retrieved on April 21, 2021, from https://iosh.com/resources-and-research/our-resources/occupational-health-toolkit/occupational-cancer/

Johns Hopkins Medicine. (n.d.). Occupational Lung Diseases. Retrieved on April 22, 2021, fromhttps://www.hopkinsmedicine.org/health/conditions-and-diseases/occupational-lung-diseases

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). (2012). Occupational Cancer Carcinogen List. Retrieved on April 21, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/cancer/npotocca.html

Occupational Safety and Health Administration. (n.d.). Carcinogens. Retrieved on April 21, 2021, from https://www.osha.gov/carcinogens/standards

Schubauer-Berigan et al. (2014). World Cancer Day – Cancer Detectives in the Workplace. Retrieved on April 21, 2021, from https://blogs.cdc.gov/niosh-science-blog/2014/02/04/world-cancer-day/

Tarlo, Susan M. (2012). Occupational Lung Disease. Retrieved on April 21, 2021, from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC7152360/