While doing their mahi/work, kaimahi/workers can encounter substances in the air they breathe that may pose a health risk.

‘Carcinogens’ can cause or promote cancer, while anything in the air that can be breathed in or react with skin is an ‘airborne risk’.

In Aotearoa, cancers and respiratory diseases (diseases affecting breathing) from airborne substances make up at least 31% of work-related harm and cause an estimated 650 deaths per year.

We are working to prevent harm from carcinogens and airborne risks. We’re doing a range of activities to improve how businesses identify and manage health risks in this area.

Understanding carcinogens and airborne risks

Carcinogens and airborne risks can be grouped together because they have related causes and effects. Many work-related cancers affect the lungs and respiratory system, and are caused by airborne exposures that can lead to further respiratory diseases and other illnesses.

Carcinogens include breathable substances or physical energy (such as ultraviolet light or radiation). Most workplace carcinogens enter the body through breathing. Common carcinogens in Aotearoa workplaces include asbestos, breathable crystalline silica, diesel engine exhaust and welding fume.

Airborne risks include dusts, mists, vapours, gases and fumes. When inhaled, airborne risks may affect the lungs or respiratory system, or enter the blood stream and affect other parts of the body (for example, benzene – used in petrol – causes blood cancers).

Find out more: Asbestosbreathable crystalline silica or dusts

The health impacts on kaimahi in Aotearoa

We estimate that 750 – 900 people die every year from work-related health causes in this country, and up to 79% of these deaths are caused by airborne substances.

We expect to keep seeing illness associated with these risks for a long time, because their effects can take years to appear. This is unavoidable due to the history of kaimahi being exposed to these risks in the past without controls.

Find out more: Work-related health estimates and burden of harm  

What WorkSafe is doing to address carcinogens and airborne risks

To help businesses and organisations identify and eliminate or control these risks, we have a three-year carcinogens and airborne risks programme.

This mahi focuses on asbestos, silica dust, wood dust and welding fume. We’re ensuring businesses and workers can access resources to understand these risks and address them.

Find out more: Improving work-related health

What employers can do to reduce carcinogens and airborne risks

PCBUS, businesses and organisations should use appropriate controls to ensure workers are not exposed to carcinogens and airborne risks.

Businesses and organisations should start with elimination, substitution, and isolation, and have good controls in place, in keeping with the hierarchy of controls.

Find out more: Hierarchy of controls for managing workplace risks

Find information on specific carcinogens and airborne risks

We have developed guidance for identifying and managing carcinogens and other airborne risks that may affect workers’ health.

Protective equipment

You may need to use respiratory protective equipment (RPE) or personal protective equipment (PPE) when working with or around carcinogens and airborne risks.

Information on using personal protective equipment

Silica dust and accelerated silicosis

In our dust section, you can view information about silica dust and accelerated silicosis (a lung disease that develops more quickly). You will find:

  • guidance on the risks of breathable crystalline silica dust, and how to control these risks and protect workers 
  • health information for workers and businesses
  • what government agencies are doing to respond
  • a contact form to use if you’re concerned about accelerated silicosis.

View the dust section


Information on working with asbestos is available in our asbestos section. You will find specialised guidance and resources, such as:

  • requirements around PPE
  • where to dispose of asbestos
  • information for plumbers, builders, electricians and painters
  • where to look out for asbestos in residential and commercial buildings
  • the asbestos removal licence system and register
  • the roles and responsibilities for PCBUs, businesses, residential landlords, kaimahi and others.

View the asbestos section

Hazardous substances

Managing hazardous substances safely is also important for kaimahi health. Our hazardous substances section has information on:

  • managing and working with hazardous substances safely
  • following key regulations
  • becoming a certified handler of hazardous substances
  • using statutory registers and keeping records of hazardous substances.

View the hazardous substances section

Carcinogens and airborne risks e-book

Download an e-book containing useful carcinogens and airborne risks resources:

Carcinogens and airborne risks roadshow digital resource (PDF 237 KB)