Workers can be exposed to a number of carcinogens and airborne risks. Important carcinogens in New Zealand workplaces include asbestos, respirable crystalline silica, diesel engine exhaust and welding fume.

Carcinogens and airborne risks are grouped together as many work-related cancers affect the lungs and respiratory system and are caused by airborne exposures that can also cause further respiratory and other diseases.

A carcinogen is a thing that can cause or promote the uncontrolled growth of cells. Examples include substances (e.g. wood dust, welding fume, respirable silica) and physical energy (e.g. UV light, ionising radiation).

An airborne risk is something in the air that might be inhaled or might interact with the skin. Most workplace carcinogens enter the body via the inhalation route. Airborne risks include dusts, mists, vapours, gases, fumes, and airborne biological risks. When inhaled they might affect the lungs or respiratory system, or they may pass into the blood stream and affect other parts of the body (e.g. benzene causes blood cancers).

In New Zealand cancers and respiratory diseases from airborne substances account for at least 31% of the total burden of work-related harm and an estimated 650 deaths per year. They account 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:


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.

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)