Radiation Exposure in the Workplace

Author: OncoLink Team
Content Contributor: Allyson Distel, MPH
Last Reviewed: February 08, 2024

What is harmful radiation exposure?

Radiation exposure can be harmful when you take in radiation that has energy to harm the cells in your body. Whether radiation can harm you is based on:

  • The amount of time you were exposed.
  • How often you were exposed.
  • How the radiation got into your body (breathing, eating, drinking, or x-rays that pass through.)

Which workplaces can expose you to radiation?

Radiation exposure can happen in the workplace based on the profession. The professions that may have an increased risk for cancer due to radiation exposure are:

  • Medical radiology technicians.
  • Aircrews.
  • Radium dial workers.
  • Underground hard-rock miners.
  • Chernobyl and Fukushima clean-up workers.
  • Nuclear weapons test participants.
  • Nuclear industry workers.

How can you protect yourself?

You cannot change past radiation exposure, but you can take steps to protect yourself. The Occupational Safety & Health Administration has guidelines and steps in place to protect workers. Let your healthcare provider know about past exposure so that you can have screening tests done to either decrease the risk of getting cancer or detect cancer at an early stage.

  • Radiologists and medical radiologic technicians, who were working before 1950, are at a higher risk of developing cancer from occupational radiation exposure. The most common cancers seen in this group are leukemia, breast cancer, and skin cancers (typically squamous cell skin cancers). Studies focusing on medical radiation workers since the 1960s do not show an increased risk of cancer. This is possibly due to increased safety practices, including better shielding, protection, and monitoring.
  • In the first half of the 20th century, radium chemists and dial workers may have unknowingly been exposed to large amounts of radium and radium-based paint. These workers are at higher risk of developing bone cancer (sarcoma) and possibly cancer of the breast and/or sinuses.
  • Underground hard-rock miners are exposed to and inhale large quantities of radon, increasing their risk of developing lung cancer. In addition, these workers are exposed to diesel exhaust, which can also raise the risk of lung cancer.
  • Due to the reduced shielding by the atmosphere, aircrews (flight attendants and pilots) are exposed to higher levels of cosmic radiation and appear to be at increased risk for developing skin cancers. This risk appears to be twice that of their non-aircrew peers. One study found that 1 hour in the cockpit exposed the person to the same amount of ultraviolet A (UVA) waves as 20 minutes in a tanning booth.
  • Chernobyl and Fukushima clean-up workers, nuclear weapons test participants, and nuclear industry workers appear to be at an increased risk for leukemia and thyroid cancer.

For more information on radiation exposure visit Oncolink.org. 

Boice Jr, J. D. (2017). From Chernobyl to Fukushima and beyond—a focus on thyroid cancer. In Thyroid Cancer and Nuclear Accidents: Long-Term Aftereffects of Chernobyl and Fukushima (pp. 21-32). Academic Press.

Field, R. W., & Withers, B. L. (2012). Occupational and environmental causes of lung cancer. Clinics in chest medicine, 33(4), 681-703.

Fry, Shirley A. “Studies of U.S. Radium Dial Workers: An Epidemiological Classic.” Radiation Research, vol. 150, no. 5, 1998, pp. S21–29. JSTOR, https://doi.org/10.2307/3579805. Accessed 8 Feb. 2024.

Harvard Flight Attendant Health Study: https://www.fahealth.org/harvard-study-3/

McNeely, E., Mordukhovich, I., Staffa, S., Tideman, S., Gale, S., & Coull, B. (2018). Cancer prevalence among flight attendants compared to the general population. Environmental Health, 17(1), 49.

Occupational and Safety Health Administration: Workers Information.

Sanlorenzo, M., Wehner, M. R., Linos, E., Kornak, J., Kainz, W., Posch, C., ... & McGrath, J. T. (2015). The risk of melanoma in airline pilots and cabin crew: a meta-analysis. JAMA dermatology, 151(1), 51-58.

Sanlorenzo, M., Vujic, I., Posch, C., Cleaver, J. E., Quaglino, P., & Ortiz-Urda, S. (2015). The risk of melanoma in pilots and cabin crew: UV measurements in flying airplanes. JAMA dermatology, 151(4), 450-452.

United States Environmental Protection Agency (2024). Radiation Health Effects. 

World Health Organization: Ionizing Radiation.

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