EFFORTS by the health and safety watchdog to prevent the 8000 deaths caused each year by work-related cancers have been condemned as "feeble".

The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) leadership is "frozen in the headlights of a problem too big for it to handle", according to Scots expert Professor Andrew Watterson, who heads the occupational and environmental health research group at the University of Stirling.

An HSE board meeting report last week set out plans for tackling the scourge of occupational cancers caused by exposure to toxic chemicals, pollution and other factors at work. It said cancers were to blame for 8000 of the 12,000 deaths a year due to occupational illnesses.

In addition, there were 14,000 new cases of workplace cancers registered every year. By far the biggest killer is asbestos, which is responsible for nearly 4000 deaths a year.

Up to 1.8 million tradespeople are at risk of getting mesothelioma and cancers of the lung, larynx and stomach from exposure to asbestos in buildings. But the HSE, a government body, has recently ended its "hidden killer" campaign aimed at highlighting the dangers.

Up to 800 deaths a year are caused when stonemasons, quarriers, foundry workers and others inhale silica dust. More than 600 deaths are attributed to exhaust emissions from diesel engines, including of drivers, miners and construction workers. There is evidence that the stress of prolonged night shifts can trigger more than 500 fatal breast cancers a year.

Other major causes of occupational cancers are paints, welding, a toxic chemical used in dry cleaning and radon, a radioactive gas.

The HSE report said its role could "only be that of a catalyst to bring about improvements" and that the primary role in combating the problem lay with others, such as employers and trade unions.

But this approach has infuriated Watterson, who wants the HSE to crack down on companies that expose workers to cancer risks.

He said: "The HSE occupational cancer prevention strategy is stalled and its actions are feeble.

"The consequences for many employees may literally be lethal, and the economic costs for businesses and the National Health Service considerable."

He accused the HSE of failing to respond to repeated calls for action since the 1980s, saying: "It appears to lack expertise and staff to address this subject, partly due to the rundown of its occupational medicine staff and the massive Westminster cuts that it has received."

Inspectors are being pulled back from checking on plants packed full of cancer-causing chemicals, Watterson alleged.

The HSE is failing to respond to international research or to meet best practice, he said. "Instead, it is frittering time away on relatively sterile debates about attributable fractions, and drawing on partnerships and pledges that don't work."

An HSE spokeswoman said: "HSE takes an evidence-based approach to occupational cancer, focusing in particular on identifying those activities and industry sectors that present the greatest risks, and working with stakeholders to identify effective and sustainable solutions.

"The board agreed that HSE should continue to engage with industry partners, and with others who may be better placed to deliver successful interventions in this difficult area."