The latest in a series of studies of ethnic migrants’ exposure to carcinogens in the workplace has revealed an alarmingly high prevalence of exposure. It varies by ethnicity but, overall, exposure among migrants (32%) was higher than among Australian-born workers (30%).
“These are pretty huge numbers”, says Associate Professor Alison Reid, who specialises in epidemiology and biostatistics at Curtin University’s School of Public Health, and who led the study. “Too many workers in Australia are exposed to carcinogens.”
Dr Reid looked at the prevalence of exposure of workers born in New Zealand, the Philippines and India to the 10 most common carcinogens in Australia, which include diesel exhaust fumes, solar UV radiation, cooking smoke and silica.
Men (45%) were far more exposed to carcinogens than women (19%), with solar UV radiation coming in highest (21% and 3.3% respectively). “The variation between males and females is because they’re doing different jobs”, she explains. “Women are more likely to do jobs in childcare, office admin and aged care.”
In a similar earlier study of Chinese, Vietnamese and Arabic migrants — all large ethnic-minority groups in Australia — Dr Reid found that Arabic-speaking workers had the highest exposure to a range of carcinogens. “They do the sorts of jobs where exposure is more likely, such as drivers, mechanics. But we also found that even when they did the same job as Australian-born workers, their exposure was higher. This suggests they’re doing the dirtier tasks.”
Knowing the prevalence of exposure to carcinogens in the workplace in different ethnic groups will allow occupational health and safety measures to be better targeted and informed, where necessary, she says.
Dr Reid uses the web-based OccIDEAS application, running on the ARDC Nectar Research Cloud, to store, process and analyse the exposure data, which is collected through highly specific phone interviews.
OccIDEAS is designed for use by epidemiologists to assess occupational exposure to specific agents. Using algorithms and historical data, it assesses the likelihood of a person’s exposure in their workplace, based on the tasks they do as part of their job.
Developed by Prof Lin Fritschi, also from the Curtin School of Population Health, to improve the way historical exposure to chemicals at work is assessed, OccIDEAS was originally hosted on an in-house server but in 2016 she moved it to the Nectar Research Cloud.
“The move to Nectar meant that we were more confident of security and back-up and continuing service”, says Prof. Fritschi.
The main carcinogens in Australian workplaces are metals (e.g., lead, nickel), dusts (e.g., asbestos, wood dust, silica), radiation (e.g., ionizing radiation, solar radiation), combustion products (e.g., diesel engine exhaust, second-hand tobacco smoke), shift work and various other agents such as benzene.
Dr Reid found that ethnic migrants were more likely to be exposed to silica than Australian-born workers, even if they were doing the same job.
English language skills also play a part. “The people who chose to be interviewed in English had much lower risk of exposure. This suggests that those who chose to be interviewed in their native language have fewer work choices — they have to do the dirtier jobs because they don’t speak English well enough for the better quality job.”