Michael Sherar, President and CEO of Cancer Care Ontario, discusses the OCRC

15 May 2013

On May 6, 2013, Michael Sherar, the President and CEO of Cancer Care Ontario, highlighted the research being done at the OCRC in his weekly blog:

Occupational Cancer Research Centre

Michael Sherar, President & CEO, Cancer Care Ontario
May 6, 2013

We spend much of our adult waking time at work, yet the impact on our health is not well understood.

This week is North American Occupational Safety and Health Week. The purpose of the week is to remind employers, employees, and the public of the importance of preventing injury and illness in the workplace, at home and in the community.

Here at CCO, we have the Occupational Cancer Research Centre (OCRC), the first research centre of its kind in Canada. It was established in 2009 to fill gaps in our knowledge of work-related cancers and to translate these findings into preventive programs to control exposures and improve the health of workers. Led by Dr. Paul Demers, an epidemiologist internationally recognized for his expertise on the health effects of workplace exposures, the OCRC is jointly funded by CCO, the Workplace Safety and Insurance Board, and the Ontario Division of the Canadian Cancer Society, and was developed in collaboration with the United Steelworkers.

Millions of Canadians are exposed to a wide range of known and suspected carcinogens in the workplace. However, the impact of these exposures is less clear.

As I mentioned in my townhall event in March, this year, the OCRC will begin work on a four-year project to examine the human impact (deaths, illness, years of life lost) and the economic costs (healthcare, productivity) cancer due to workplace exposures in Canada. This is the first Canada-wide investigation to assess the full impact of exposure to carcinogens in the workplace. With a $1-million grant from the Canadian Cancer Society, a cross-Canada team of scientists, epidemiologists and health economists will assess the impact of 44 internationally recognized workplace carcinogens on 27 different types of cancer. The study will use historical data collected as part of the CAREX Canada project and the Canadian Workplace Exposure Database funded by the Canadian Partnership Against Cancer.

The study’s main goals are to examine how serious the problem is in Canada by estimating the number of new cancer cases and cancer deaths that can be attributed to workplace factors, and also to weigh the economic impact.

The aim of this research is to provide the hard facts necessary to bring about policy change to promote prevention and create safer workplaces across Canada. For example, we believe the data generated by this project will encourage both federal and provincial governments to consider passing strong prevention regulations, such as Ontario’s Toxics Reduction Act (TRA) which came into effect last year, or to lower the allowable levels of exposure to carcinogens, which are reviewed every year. Although the TRA requires companies to report the use of toxic chemicals and produce a pollution prevention plan, it does not require them to change their practices. The data generated by this study will be used to encourage voluntary reductions in exposure by companies.

In the future, study findings will help with decisions on where to change, strengthen or enforce regulations on workplace exposures in order to help prevent workplace-related cancers, and will help to examine the potential benefits of prevention activities on future cancer rates.

This is a fascinating study, with the potential to lead to policies to directly prevent future cancers and decrease future cancer rates across the country. I look forward to updating you as the study progresses.

Along with this new study, I wanted to highlight a few other achievements the OCRC has led recently:

  • Night shift work has been classified as a probable cause of breast cancer among women and is suspected of having effects on other chronic diseases, such as cardiovascular disease and reproductive disorders. In the fall of 2012, the OCRC held a multi-stakeholder workshop on shiftwork. Employer and worker representatives were provided with an evidence-based, prevention-policy-relevant update on the most current scientific evidence on how to mitigate the adverse impacts of night shift work. The evidence shows that short, forward shifts and employees’ ability to self-roster their shifts reduces negative health effects.
  • Currently, we cannot tell whether workers in specific occupational groups or industry sectors are at an increased risk of cancer compared to the general population as Canada does not have an occupational cancer surveillance system. To address this, the OCRC is working with Statistics Canada and Health Canada to lay the groundwork for a system that will identify occupational groups at increased risk of cancer. This will help identify preventative interventions and prioritize regulatory action.
  • Pesticides have long been suspected of contributing to the risk of a number of cancers, such as non-Hodgkins lymphoma. However, because of insufficient information on cause and effect, regulators have traditionally been reluctant to implement stringent regulations restricting pesticide exposure. OCRC is working with the Cross-Canada Study of Pesticides and Health to identify risks associated with exposure to mixtures of pesticides. The data coming from this study is being combined with data from three similar studies conducted by the US National Cancer Institute. This will provide a more definitive picture of the role of pesticide exposure as a cause of cancer and will be a key piece of data to inform regulatory action.

The OCRC is yet another example of alignment to our corporate strategy with respect to prevention of chronic disease, building our capacity and strength with respect to research and evidence driving policy in prevention.