Workers can be exposed to a number of carcinogens and airborne risks. Common carcinogens in New Zealand workplaces include asbestos, radon, certain pesticides and respirable crystalline silica.

A carcinogen is a substance or mixture that causes cancer. The effects of carcinogens and airborne risks may take many years to develop and there may be no early warning signs.

Workers can be exposed to a number of carcinogens and airborne risks. In New Zealand, common carcinogens in the workplace include asbestos, radon, certain pesticides and respirable crystalline silica.

In New Zealand, cancers and respiratory disease account for 31% of the total burden of work-related harm, and an estimated total of 650 deaths each year. This area accounts for 79% of the estimated 750 – 900 people who die every year from work-related health causes. You can find out more on our work-related health estimates and burden of harm page.

WorkSafe has a focus on preventing harm from carcinogens and airborne risks and has identified a range of activities to improve how businesses identify and manage this area. You can find more information on WorkSafe’s planned actions on our improving work-related health page

Within our focus on Carcinogens and Airborne Risks, we will initially be paying particular attention to silica dust, wood dust and welding fume. This includes ensuring we have the resources and information available for businesses and workers to understand and respond to these risks.

We expect we will continue to see illness associated with these risks for a long time because of the long latency with some of these hazards. This is an unfortunate but unavoidable reality of the legacy of uncontrolled exposure to these risks.

Businesses and organisations should ensure workers aren’t exposed to carcinogens and airborne risks. As per the hierarchy of controls, businesses and organisations should start with elimination, substitution, isolation and have good controls in place.

Silica dust and accelerated silicosis

Information about silica dust and accelerated silicosis is available on our dust section. Information available includes:

  • guidance on the risks of respirable crystalline silica dust and how to control these risks and protect workers (link:
  • health information for workers and PCBUs
  • what Government agencies are doing to respond
  • a contact form if you have concerns about accelerated silicosis.


Information on working around and with asbestos is available on our asbestos section. Information available includes specialised guidance on working with asbestos such as:

  • requirements around PPE
  • where to dispose of asbestos
  • information for plumbers, builders, electricians and painters on working with asbestos
  • where asbestos can be commonly found in residential and commercial buildings
  • the asbestos removal licence system and register
  • the roles and responsibilities for businesses, residential landlords, workers and others.

Hazardous substances

It’s important to manage hazardous substances safely. Our section on hazardous substances has information on:

  • managing hazardous substances safely
  • working with hazardous substances safely
  • key regulations
  • how to become a certified handler of hazardous substances
  • statutory registers and records of hazardous substances

Working with carcinogens and airborne risks

You may need to use respiratory protective equipment (RPE) or personal protective equipment (PPE) when working with or around carcinogens and airborne risks. Our personal protective equipment section has information on using this equipment.


Life Shavers

Our Life Shavers campaign is one example of how WorkSafe is encouraging and supporting appropriate use of RPE and PPE within workplaces when and where it is necessary.

Our inspectors identified a concerning regularity in workers with facial hair wearing respiratory protective equipment, which would mean it was unlikely to be forming a seal. While businesses are required to provide RPE and make sure it is comfortable, it is a responsibility of the worker to ensure they are clean shaven. Businesses were reporting to us a difficulty in having workers meet this need, so WorkSafe has begun a campaign aimed at increasing the education and understanding of workers in this area.