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       Hazards, number 144, 2018
Diesel fumes: A guide to clearing the air at work
Diesel exhaust fumes are a dirty, deadly and daily exposure for millions of workers. Hazards editor Rory O’Neill looks at how union reps can tackle this top public health menace.

Walk along a railway platform, through a bus station, by a road. And breathe. Our bodies are not designed to cope with a chemical-laden lungful every time we inhale, much less the doses now routine on Britain’s EU and World Health Organisation 1 (WHO) emissions limit busting, transport choked streets.

Those who work regularly on or by the roads are particularly hard hit.  Recent GMB research showed ‘excessive’ levels of diesel exhaust fumes on Britain’s streets place a broad range of workers at risk, from street cleaners to traffic wardens.

The acute symptoms of eye, nose and throat irritation, dizziness, headaches, a cough, frequent colds and chest infections, are bad enough. But the black snot smearing your handkerchief when your blow your nose reveals a more serious problem. It is a signal the constant exposure to vehicle pollution could be overwhelming your body’s defence mechanisms.

Breath-by-breath, we inhale a dose of diesel exhaust fumes, containing a mix of potent poisons linked to lung and bladder cancer,2-6 potentially fatal heart problems7-8 including heart attack and stroke, asthma, bronchitis, emphysema (the chronic obstructive pulmonary diseases or COPD)9 and other chronic harm including cognitive’ impairment,10 or brain damage.

Dr Lesley Rushton of the School of Medicine at Imperial College London – the author of the UK Health and Safety Executive’s (HSE) occupational cancer estimates, which saw diesel exhaust placed on HSE’s top 10 list11 – has acknowledged the wider health concerns.

In The problem with diesel,12 a June 2012 paper in the prestigious Journal of the National Cancer Institute (JNCI), she noted: “A large body of epidemiological work has shown consistent associations between particulate matter in ambient air and several health outcomes including chronic bronchitis, ischaemic heart disease, stroke, and respiratory infections and exacerbation of asthma.”

Some may not live long enough to get sick. Toxic gases including carbon monoxide in diesel exhaust fume can accumulate in confined spaces causing death by asphyxiation or heart attack.13

Clearing the air

Launching Diesel exhaust in the workplace,14 the TUC’s October 2018 prevention guide, the union body said diesel exhaust is one of the biggest workplace killers.
The TUC is critical of official inaction on what HSE says is a ‘priority’ problem. Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH), all employers have a legal duty to take ‘reasonably practicable’ measures to prevent exposure to substances that can cause health problems at work. Even greater efforts are required where those exposures are to a recognised occupational cancer risk.

But TUC head of safety Hugh Robertson said: “At the moment, the level of awareness about the dangers of diesel fuel is appalling, and any enforcement action is rare. That is why the TUC has published a guide to diesel exhaust that highlights the practical and simple steps that your employer can take to protect their workers.”

The guide notes the problem isn’t restricted to the roads. “Diesel exhaust is not only produced by motor vehicles but also by ships, many trains, and anywhere there is a diesel engine, such as a generator or pump.”

The risks can be astonishingly high, it warns, with Robertson saying a 2012 review by the UN’s cancer agency IARC indicated “that people such as bus drivers who are regularly exposed to diesel exhaust fumes at work can be up to 40 per cent more likely to develop lung cancer,” Britain’s biggest cancer killer.

Robertson challenged the industry line that new diesel technologies are cleaner and safer, a position also cited by industry-backed scientists in its campaign to head off tighter controls (see Hazards 144 feature, Fuming). He said while well maintained, new diesel engines produce far lower levels of sooty ‘elemental carbon’, their emissions contain “higher levels of many of the other chemicals. “Also, some new bio-mass diesel engines seem to produce much smaller particles. These are likely to be more dangerous as they can get further into your lungs.”

He warned the forthcoming EU-wide limit of 0.05mg/m3 15 for the elemental carbon in the fume, which also recognises formally that diesel exhaust as a workplace carcinogen, is not a safe limit.  The new standard, to take effect in most workplaces in two years’ time, is a weaker ‘compromise’ standard agreed after governments bowed to industry pressure.

Robertson said because of this “trade unions need to ensure that their employers take action to remove or reduce the risk from diesel exhaust to the lowest level possible, regardless of any limit.”

Union action

Unions have been preventing or reducing exposure to diesel exhaust for decades, through demanding cleaner technologies or better maintenance and ventilation (Hazards 7). It’s a protective role unions continue to perform.

A national campaign launched by Unite in 2017 includes an online diesel emissions register where Unite members can record when they have been exposed to excessive diesel exhaust fumes. The union says the information will be used to “force employers to clean up their workplaces.”  It could also provide evidence of negligence in future compensation claims for diesel-related occupational diseases.

Unite survey findings published as it launched the register identified widespread health effects linked to diesel exhaust exposures, including wheezing, respiratory problems, eye irritation, nausea and headache. Long-term problems recorded include reduced lung capacity, breathlessness and asthma.

The rail union TSSA surveyed members at an engineering company who carry out tunnel examinations because of concerns over prolonged diesel exhaust exposures in a closed environment. After management refused to test air quality in the tunnels the union advised members to use the ‘close call’ reporting systems to log health and safety issues every time they suspected there was a diesel fume-related problem and eventually testing was done.

Prospect’s mining branch worked through the Mines Safety Leadership Group, which brings together unions, employers and regulators, “to ensure the employers introduced a more thorough cleaning process and routine for underground vehicles, a review of maintenance, ensuring that filters and ignition systems are efficient and new standards for using appropriate diesel fuel.”

Prevention priority

The TUC’s call for prevention is echoed by Imperial College occupational cancer specialist Lesley Rushton. She notes “stringent occupational and particularly environmental standards for DEE [diesel engine exhaust] should be set and compliance ensured to have an impact on health outcomes.

“In the occupational situation, in addition to lower emission and more efficient engines, reduction in DEE can be achieved through: 1) engineering controls such as improved ventilation and regular maintenance of vehicles; 2) improving worker practices such as limiting the number of vehicles, particularly in closed spaces, and turning off engines when not in use; and 3) as a last resort, the use of appropriate respiratory protective equipment.

“Reduction in the general environment presents more of a challenge, although some of the occupational control measures are also relevant. However, the necessity for such reduction is becoming increasingly apparent and is essential if the health of large numbers of people is not to be compromised.”

Hugh Robertson said the evidence shows prevention by eliminating or at least minimising diesel exhaust fumes exposures is crucial. That is why the new TUC guide “gives a clear and simple message to all trade union health and safety representatives. If you can see or smell diesel exhaust emissions in your workplace then you have a problem and your employer needs to sort it.”



Selected references

1. Breathe clean air: everywhere, for everyone. Protecting workers from air pollution outdoors and indoors, WHO briefing, 29 October 2018.
2. The burden of occupational lung cancer in Great Britain: Lung cancer, Research report 858, HSE, 2012.
3. The burden of occupational cancer in Great Britain: Bladder cancer, Research report 865, HSE, 2012.
4. Diesel Engine Exhaust carcinogenic - expert panel and news release, IARC, 12 June 2012.
5. Diesel and gasoline engine exhausts and some nitroarenes, IARC Monograph, volume 105, 2014.
6. Lamia Benbrahim-Tallaa and others. Carcinogenicity of diesel-engine and gasoline-engine exhausts and some nitroarenes, Lancet Oncology, Volume 13, issue 7, pages 663-664, 1 July 2012.
7. Costello S and others. Ischaemic heart disease mortality, diesel exhaust, and respirable particulate matter exposure in the diesel exhaust in miners study, Occupational and Environmental Medicine, volume 74:A107, 2017.
8. Torén K, Bergdahl IA, Nilsson T, et al. Occupational exposure to particulate air pollution and mortality due to ischaemic heart disease and cerebrovascular disease. Occupational and Environmental Medicine 2007;64:515-519.
9. Hart JE, Eisen EA, Laden F. Occupational diesel exhaust exposure as a risk factor for chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, Current Opinions in Pulmonary Medicine, volume 18, number 2, pages 151-154, 2012. doi: 10.1097/MCP.0b013e32834f0eaa.
10. Levesque S, Surace MJ, McDonald J, Block ML. Air pollution & the brain: Subchronic diesel exhaust exposure causes neuroinflammation and elevates early markers of neurodegenerative disease. Journal of Neuroinflammation, volume 8: 105, 2011.
11. Occupational cancer – priorities for prevention, report to the HSE board meeting, 16 May 2012.
12. Lesley Rushton. The problem with diesel, Journal of the National Cancer Institute, Volume 104, Issue 11, pages 796–797.6 June 2012.
13. Griffin SM, Ward MK, Terrell AR, Stewart D. Diesel fumes do kill: a case of fatal carbon monoxide poisoning directly attributed to diesel fuel exhaust with a 10-year retrospective case and literature review*. Journal of Forensic Sciences, volume 53, number 5, pages 1,206-11, 2008.
14. Diesel exhaust in the workplace: A TUC guide for trade union activists, October 2018.
15. A trade union victory in protecting workers exposed to diesel engine exhaust, ETUC news release, 11 October 2018.



Diesel exhaust in the workplace: A TUC guide for trade union activists, October 2018.
Unite diesel exhaust register, guide for members and poster.
Diesel Exhaust fact sheet, CCOHS, Canada.
OSHA Diesel Exhaust/Diesel Particulate Matter Hazard Alert, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).

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Die diesel die

Diesel exhaust fumes are a dirty, deadly and daily exposure for millions of workers. A Hazards factsheet looks at how union reps can tackle this top public health menace.

Clearing the air
Union action
Prevention priority
TUC checklist

Hazards feature
Fuming A generation after Hazards warned of the deadly risks posed by diesel exhaust, official inaction and industry dirty tricks mean thousand are still dying as a result each year.
A Hazards exclusive.

Hazards webpages
Work and health

More information
Diesel exhaust in the workplace: A TUC guide for trade union activists, October 2018.
TUC website - Diesel fumes

TOXIC FOG A graphic reminder of the harm caused to workers and the public by diesel exhaust fumes.
A Hazards pin-up-at-work poster.