REUTERS | Gary Hershorn

Do night shifts cause cancer?

In March 2009 the Danish government started paying compensation to women who had developed breast cancer after long spells working nights. This followed a decision by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC), an arm of the UN’s World Health Organisation, to classify night working as an activity that probably causes cancer.

Should the construction and engineering industry worry about a flood of claims from employees who work nights?

How many people work nights in the construction and engineering industry?

Unions estimate that 20% of the UK workforce is involved in night working. In the construction and engineering industry this includes employees working in:

  • The oil and gas sectors.
  • Tube and railway maintenance.
  • Highways maintenance.
  • Tunnelling and mining activities.
  • Site security.

Across the industry, this represents a significant number of workers.

Does night working really cause cancer?

IARC ranks cancer risks and rates night shifts in its second highest category, Group 2A: Probably carcinogenic to humans. Putting this in context, this places night shifts alongside using sunbeds or anabolic steroids (or stangely, working as a hairdresser). In the words of Dr Vincent Cogliano of the IARC, “the level of evidence is really no different than it might be for an industrial chemical.”

However, the IARC’s decision has divided expert opinion. Professor Andrew Watterson, an occupational health specialist at Stirling University said, “I think we can say there is a big public health problem here.” In contrast, John Boyages, director of the New South Wales Breast Cancer Institute said “I am a little bit puzzled… and I really think [the Danes] have gone out on a limb.”

Are UK claims imminent?

Claims against employers in the UK cannot be ruled out, but there is unlikely to be any “official” recognition of the link between night working and cancer in the short term. The HSE is investigating a possible link, although its report is unlikely to be published before 2011.

While there is no immediate prospect of claims in the UK, the same may not be true of other jurisdictions. This means that construction and engineering companies working on international projects should pay particular attention to their health and safety policies for night workers.

What should employers do?

Short of abandoning night shifts altogether, the best that employers can do is implement measures that minimise the risks to night workers. Possible measures include:

  • Reducing the frequency with which a worker is asked to work nights.
  • Offering regular health checks to night workers.
  • Installing equipment that mimics natural light, such as special lamps.
  • Educating workers about steps they can take to minimise the risk to them.

In the long term, we may see a trend away from night working, but that is likely be a gradual movement rather than an sudden shift.

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