Tuesday, May 10, 2011

Occupational cancer in Alberta

Alberta Health Services has published some results about occupational cancer in Alberta. There are some interesting statistics here.

Using cancer data from 2002-2011, researchers suggest that approximately 624 cancers with a strong link to occupational occupational exposures are diagnosed each year in Alberta. If you expand the test to cancers with strong or suspected links to occupational exposure, the number rises to 761 per year.

These stats are conservative, reflecting the current state of knowledge and carcinogens in the workplace. The real number will likely be larger. And, just to be clear, these stats don’t include non-cancerous occupational diseases. So, in the case of asbestos-related diseases, they include cases of lung cancer and mesothelioma but not asbestosis.

In 2008, only 31 claims for occupationally related cancer were accepted by the Alberta WCB despite 761 new cases. This suggests 96% of occupational cancers are not reported in workers’ compensation statistics. This reflects a combination of murky causality, long latency periods and ignorance. The upshot is that the burden of occupational cancer is shifted from employers to taxpayers and workers.

The researchers estimate that the direct cost to the Alberta medical system of occupational cancers is approximately $15,682,000 per year. In addition, indirect costs—resulting from loss of economic resources and reduced productivity—are estimated at approximately $64.1 million per year.

In the report is this interesting recommendation: "Optimally, continue allocating resources until benefits of last dollar spent = $1.00" (p.50). This reflects a typical cost-benefit approach to injury reduction: only prevent injuries where the injury costs more than the prevention.

This sounds nice and logical until you realize the implication: if prevention is expensive, then we're agreeing we'd rather injure the worker. Workers know that the purpose of injury prevention is not making economically rational decisions, but rather preventing workers from getting maimed and killed.

Here is a list, from 2010, of the fatalities from occupational diseases. These 62 cases were reported over a number of years and this list includes only the fatalities from them that occurred in 2010. Most are from asbesto-related disease.

As you read through the list, keep in mind that reporting of occupational diseases is down in the single digits so a full count for occupational disease deaths in 2010 might have more like 250 entries.

This purpose of including this list is to give you a sense of the human cost of occupational disease in Alberta. Each of these workers was likely a spouse, parent and grandparent.

One hopes that we might strive to eliminate as much occupational disease as possible, not just the disease that is economically rational to eliminate.

-- Bob Barnetson

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