Managing chronic illness and workplace exposure in HR

'We can hope for better in the future'

Managing chronic illness and workplace exposure in HR

Dealing with a chronic illness such as cancer is an ordeal in its own right – especially if workplace exposure can be deemed a root cause of the illness. That’s the specialist area of Dr. Paul Demers, Director of the Occupational Cancer Research Centre, who will shortly be speaking at the World Congress on Safety and Health at Work.

Internationally recognized for his expertise on the health effects of workplace exposures, Demers sits on many expert panels, including the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) working groups that evaluated carcinogens such as dusts and fibres, firefighting and formaldehyde.

“There's been a lot of recognition of the importance of workplace exposure on chronic disease,” reflected Demers. “However, I think we're making slow progress in this area. For instance, I would estimate that in many countries only five percent of workplace cancers are being recognized. That's because chronic disease occurs so long after exposures occur. In addition, chronic disease can involve multiple factors, such as smoking and workplace exposures, which can combine to cause a cancer. The assumption has always been that it’s the smoking which is the most impactful here. I’m hoping that there’s a gradual change in attitude towards that, because it impacts not just issues around compensation for the worker, but also a willingness to invest in prevention going forward.”

So – how can HR professionals be part of the movement to usher in these much-needed changes? What actions, for instance, can employers take to ensure greater prevention?

“There's still is a great deal of work to be done if you really want to reduce the cancer risk associated with work,” Demers explains. “What’s interesting in 2021 is that the term personal protective equipment (PPE) used to be just occupational health and safety jargon. Now, because of COVID, it’s used all the time.

“People think that that’s where prevention should start, whereas those of us who are in the field of workplace health and safety know that PPE should be the last resort. We should be trying to structure jobs so that they are safe. It shouldn't take somebody deciding to put on a mask or pair of gloves. It shouldn't be a behavioral approach. It should be an engineering solution or some other kind of structural approach to removing hazards from the workplace.”

In Canada, many of the most hazardous jobs are being automated over time. This in itself shows that employers are making some headway in improving overall workplace safety.

“That kind of approach also deals with a lot of chemical hazards where processes can be enclosed, ventilation can be improved,” adds Demers. “We can find alternative, less toxic chemicals to use in the workplace. There's a lot of ways the technology can contribute to prevention.”

This is all useful forward-thinking advice for the future – but what can HR professionals and employers do in the present day to handle the unfortunate event of an employee’s chronic illness diagnosis?

“I think this is a very important topic,” Demers says, “because cancer is becoming increasingly common as we lead longer working lives. It means many people will be more likely to be working while they are diagnosed with cancer.”

“If the employee suspects that their cancer was caused by an exposure in the workplace, then that could be a wake-up call to an employer to take more preventative actions. The thing is, with cancer, that the exposure was likely to have occurred some time ago. So the priority has to be to assess: if it was possibly related to an exposure in the past, does that hazard still exist?”

“We can't change the past. We can only change the present and hope for better in the future.”

Thought leaders in the human resource profession will find a range of rich program offerings at the XXII World Congress on Safety & Health at Work. Registration for this virtual global congress is open now.

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