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Looking after our employees lungs

By Linda Jackson on 31 July 2020

With the COVID 19 pandemic, we have been made increasingly aware of respiratory health. The controversial ban on the sales of cigarettes in South Africa has put further focus on the health of our lungs – (well some of us anyway). It seems fitting that World Lung Cancer Day in 2020 deserves even more emphasis and attention than before.

According to lung cancer is the second most common cancer in both men and women. Lung cancer is by far the leading cause of cancer death among both men and women, making up almost 25% of all cancer deaths. Each year, more people die of lung cancer than of colon, breast, andprostate cancers combined.

Cigarette smoking is considered the leading cause of lung cancer, as it is the main causative agent forabout 80% to 90% of cases in countries where the prevalence of cigarette smoking is high.

Approximately 300,000 deaths/year due to lung cancer worldwide could not be attributed to cigarette smoking. Many factors of lung cancer—other than cigarette smoking—have been identified: exposure to environmental cigarette smoke (passive smoking); occupational exposure to agents like asbestos and hard metals; exposure to radiation, especially radon and exposure to indoorand outdoor air pollution are recognised by the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC)—an independent scientific section of the World Health Organization. In fact IARC recognises that lung cancer is considered to be the most common among occupational related cancers.

What does this mean for the food industry?

Although there are many industrial activities with a much higher lung cancer risk potential than food manufacturing, the IARC has listed frying, emissions from high temperature and the occupational exposures inspraying and application of non-arsenical insecticides as two possible carcinogenic agents related to the food and agricultural sector. A more significant carcinogen, asbestos, may also be an ongoing occupational hazard inolder food manufacturing facilities due to construction materials. R. 155 of 10 February 2002, Asbestos regulations 2001, under OCCUPATIONAL HEALTH AND SAFETY ACT, 1993 (ACT NO. 85 OF 1993) require an asbestos register and appropriate controls to protect all staff from this substance to avoid it being disturbed. The regulations include very prescriptive requirements for how and who may work or remove this asbestos to minimise exposure.

Talking about viruses just now

One review research article of some 60 studies investigating lung cancer risk in highly exposed workers in the meat and poultry industries, concluded that there was at least a 30% excess risk of lung cancer in meat and poultry plant workers, even after controlling for smoking. Evidence points to food animal oncogenic microorganisms as one of the main causes. More recent research has provided epidemiologic evidence, indirectly linking the oncogenic viruses of poultry with the occurrence of cancer in humans. The authors do highlight that confirmatory studies, particularly molecular studies providing definitive proof of poultry oncogenic retrovirus integration in human DNA are needed, before the findings observed in this study can be put into proper perspective.

The health of our employees is currently in the spotlight. While smoking may be a choice that employers cannot control, we should be doing whatever we can to manage any and all occupational hazards that may place our employees at increased risk. It’s you legal and moral obligation.