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       Hazards, number 156, 2021
AIR FORCE | Air pollution should not be all in a day’s work
It causes lung and heart disease and cancer. It’s probably in your workplace right now. The Hazards Campaign’s Hilda Palmer and Désirée Abrahams of Global Action Plan spell out why air pollution is a major problem at work and what you can do about it.


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.”  
Hazards ‘Die diesel die’ factsheet

Breathing clean air at work should be a human right, but many workers are condemned to breathe toxic, unsafe air from work activities and external air.

Air pollution is not just about traffic fumes or a public health crisis. It’s been a workplace emergency for decades in manufacturing, construction and other heavy industries. And office air is also heavily contaminated with many chemicals in the building, furniture and fittings, some of which are harmful in very small concentrations.  Workers are at the centre of the toxic soup of chemicals in which we work and live.

The Covid pandemic has exposed how typically poor ventilation allowed the proliferation of large workplace infection clusters (Hazards 152).

For years workers have fought to improve the air flow in their workplaces, to bring in fresh air and remove stale air. Sealed buildings without opening windows, with inadequate heating, ventilation and air conditioning (HVAC) systems or only trickle bricks in the walls led to ‘sick building syndrome’.

Ventilation is key

TEAM WORK Unite reps worked with management at the logistics giant GIST to identify pollution problems in the workplace and to take immediate action to sort them. The Unite team at GIST included (left to right) Jason Rogerson, David Simons and Wayne Patton.  more

Get the ventilation right and you reduce the suffering and ill-health caused by upper respiratory tract infections, colds and flu, eye and skin irritation from dust, fungal spores, bacteria and viruses, headaches and drowsiness, and you improve concentration.

But employers often rebuffed workers’ complaints and the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is not very active in enforcing the law.

Over the last decade, increasing scientific evidence has highlighted how long term and chronic exposure to air pollutants can adversely affect our health. Even at low levels, air pollutants can affect different and multiple organs of the human body.

In a 2016 commentary in the Lancet, Philip Landrigan of the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai, New York, stated “air pollution is one of the great killers of our age,” highlighting several factors related to work including the “rapid expansion of megacities, globalisation of industrial production, proliferation of pesticides and toxic chemicals, and growing use of motor vehicles.”

Globally, the World Health Organisation (WHO) posits that air pollution causes at least 7 million premature deaths annually, and results in the loss of millions more healthy years of life. In the UK, Public Health England stated in its 2020 guidance on air pollution that it is the largest environmental risk to public health, contributing to roughly 28,000 and 36,000 deaths every year.

There’s little evidence on HSE’s enforcement database that it has ever taken a prosecution over general workplace ventilation. There are though clear and enforceable legal duties on employers. The Workplace (health, safety and welfare) Regulations stipulate: “Effective and suitable provision shall be made to ensure that every enclosed workplace is ventilated by a sufficient quantity of fresh or purified air.”

The accompanying guidance to the regulations specifies: “The fresh-air supply rate should not normally fall below 5 to 8 litres per second, per occupant. When establishing a fresh-air supply rate, consider the following factors:  the floor area per person; the processes and equipment involved; whether the work is strenuous.”

Work is worst

For air pollution, like other environmental hazards, workers are the canaries in the system.  Workers are the first to be exposed, exposed most and usually considered and protected last, with the least protective exposure limits.

SUBSTANDARD Global Action Plan (GAP) warns UK air pollution guidelines are significantly weaker than WHO recommended limits. But it says workplace standards for respirable dust, fine particulates or nitrogen dioxide are near 100 times less protective or non-existent. more

Though some workplace air has become cleaner and some dirty industries have vanished, more and more synthetic chemicals, barely tested or regulated and harmful in parts per billion or trillion, are now made and used in buildings, furniture and fittings and are in the air at work. 

Workplace limits are typically tens or hundreds of times less protective than environmental limits for the same substances.

Under the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations (COSHH), employers are required to measure and monitor some chemicals and some particulate matter.

When it comes to dust, size does matter. UK workplace exposure limits are set for inhalable dust, effectively PM10 sized particles. But the workplace standard allows workers to be exposed during their shift at a level 80 times higher than the UK standard outside the workplace, and almost 90 times the World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended standard.

WHO says the smaller PM2.5 particles ignored in UK current workplace standards are harmful to health, with no safe exposure threshold.

If employers don’t measure these smaller particles, then workers could be unwittingly exposed and workplace monitoring could give the workplace a bogus clean bill of health.

Air pollution is also an equality issue. The lowest paid workers and their families are most at risk and multiply exposed to toxic substances in the air at work, in their homes and local environment. The lower your wage, the more likely your community will be cheek by jowl with dirty workplaces, old contaminated sites and close to busy roads. Black and ethnic minority workers are most badly affected.

Hilda Palmer works for the Hazards Campaign and
Désirée Abrahams
is the clean air manager with Global Action Plan.

Safety reps’ checklist
The Trade Union Clean Air Network (TUCAN) recommends union safety reps take the following action to address air pollution in the workplace.
Use all your rights under the Safety Reps and Safety Committee Regulations to be consulted, informed, carry out inspections and surveys, and be involved in risk assessments.
Identify air pollution hotspots.
Identify group of workers particularly affected – outdoor workers, drivers, those near busy roads.
Identify the harms caused by these exposures.
Check the air quality – get your employer to monitor and report indoor and outdoor exposure levels for chemicals and dust in the air.
Include information in Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations assessments, making sure these are gender-sensitive.
Work towards eliminating or controlling air pollution exposure to the most protective standards – for example, UK Ambient Air quality standards and World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended standards, both which are many times more protective than workplace exposure limits (WELs).
Make links with local community and environmental groups working on external air pollution.


Change is in the air

The GIST site in Crewe is always busy. The logistic firm, which is the main haulier for Tesco and Morrisons supermarkets and a major transport provider for M&S Foods, manages a constant rotation of refrigerated diesel HGVs, moving goods between the site and a refrigerated warehouse.

Vehicles are maintained and serviced at the same location, situated near the M6 motorway and West Coast diesel train line. Exposure of workers to air pollution is ‘a clear concern’, the union Unite said.

It was a problem both Unite safety reps and GIST management were committed to address. A meeting to discuss the harm to workers’ health caused by air pollution led to a plan. Working with The Trade Union Clean Air Network (TUCAN) and pollution campaign group Global Action Plan, the company and its union reps set about monitoring the warehouse and vehicle maintenance unit for two key pollutants, nitrogen dioxide and the small respirable PM2.5 particles.

Monitors were installed and workers were asked to list their activities in a diary. After two weeks the monitors were removed, the results analysed and then presented and discussed at a joint union-management meeting.

The exercise flagged up some PM2.5 spikes. One was put down to a spider on the monitor. But another in the warehouse was identified as due to a heating fan recirculating dust. It was switched off, serviced and new filters were fitted within 24 hours. A £75,000 tender was put out for a new extractor system.

The monitoring initiative found PM2.5 levels in some areas were three times the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) air quality guidelines. Nitrogen dioxide levels were also above WHO levels. This was anticipated because of the site’s activities and location; it is a pollutant associated with diesel exhaust fume (Hazards 144).

Once problems were identified, preventive measures introduced. Lorries all had idling cut-outs already, but there were fumes from the red diesel - a dirty fuel being phased out – powering the refrigeration units running continuously when parked outside. This has been reduced by thermostat cuts-outs.

GIST is now looking to reduce diesel fumes by trialling liquid nitrogen and electric freezer units and HGVs. Plans by more major cities to introduce Air Quality Zones make this an added priority.

Unite senior steward Dave Simons commented: “The monitoring has made us more aware of the level of pollution which is generally invisible but very harmful. It was a very useful exercise and we are grateful to the Hazards Campaign, TUCAN, and to Keith Cotton from Global Action Plan. Air pollution is such a major issue we must tackle it at work and help to protect our workers and local communities.”

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Trade Union Clean Air Network (TUCAN)

Air pollution is now recognised as a priority public health concern. It was always a huge occupational health crisis. In 2019, the Hazards Campaign, working with the Greener Jobs Alliance and the Universities and Colleges Union (UCU), set up the Trade Union Clean Air Network (TUCAN).

TUCAN training sessions, supported by a safety reps’ guide, encourage action to reduce air pollution at work caused by external traffic sources and created by the work itself. Union reps are encouraged to use existing laws on chemicals and their trade union safety representatives’ rights.

Major UK trade unions have signed up to a TUCAN charter for action on pollution, which calls for:

1 A New Clean Air Act that enshrines the right to breathe clean air.
2 An update to health and safety law, so COSHH and related guidance applies more clearly to indoor and outdoor air pollution, with new, more protective Workplace Exposure Limits on diesel exhaust and other toxic vehicle emissions.
3 Ensure effective enforcement.
4 Involve the workforce - and examine indoor and outdoor occupational air pollution in consultation with union safety reps.
5 Protect jobs, recognising clean air strategies will have implications for jobs and employment, and applying ‘Just Transition’ principles.
6 Rapidly expand clean and inexpensive public transport systems alongside investment in active transport to increase levels of cycling and walking.

Tackling air pollution must be centred around workers’ health and tougher law, stricter enforcement and Toxic Use Reduction policies.

TUCAN highlights the benefits of making links with community and environmental actions and climate change.

• Greener Jobs Alliance www.greenerjobsalliance.co.uk
• Toxics Use Reduction Institute (TURI) https://www.turi.org/    
• GAP Action for Clean Air https://www.actionforcleanair.org.uk/

It is so much worse at work

Global Action Plan (GAP) warns UK air pollution guidelines are significantly weaker than World Health Organisation (WHO) recommended limits. But it says workplace standards for respirable dust, fine particulates or nitrogen dioxide are approaching 100 times higher or non-existent.

In 2021, WHO updated its ambient air quality standards for six pollutants: particulate matter (PM), ozone (O₃), nitrogen dioxide (NO₂) sulphur dioxide (SO₂) and carbon monoxide (CO), following 16 years of systematically reviewing large global studies on their impact on human health. GAP says these revised air quality standards are a significant improvement for public health globally but highlight UK government’s shortcomings in protecting the health of its citizens, and specifically, the health of UK workers, through its failure to revise associated ambient and indoor air quality regulations.

In the UK, binding limits for concentrations in outdoor air of major air pollutants that affect public health, such as particulate matter (PM10 and PM2.5) and nitrogen dioxide (NO2) continues to be based on the Ambient Air Quality Directive 2008. UK levels for ambient air pollutants ( the UK Outdoor Objectives) are now higher than the revised WHO Air Quality Standards 2021. 

From Bitesize 3: Air Pollution in the workplace: regulation and enforcement (Global Action Plan, Zehnder Clean Air Solutions, TUCAN, 2021).

GAP’s ‘Business Action on Clean Air’ campaign provides information on how a company “contributes to air pollution, and the steps that can be taken to understand and address the issue.” It notes that “while businesses may view addressing air pollution as part of their risk management approach to business, there are numerous opportunities to be gained by addressing air quality within the workplace and wider operations.

“In tackling air pollution, synergies with corporate efforts to address climate change and attempts to meet net zero will be born, as well as generating cost savings, and providing another lens to pursue innovative new ways of working, which will be cleaner and greener. Such progressive actions will all chime with potential new recruits, customers and investors, demonstrating that such companies are progressive, future-thinking, and part of the solution to the global air pollution crisis.”

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Air force

It causes lung and heart disease and cancer. It’s probably in your workplace right now. The Hazards Campaign’s Hilda Palmer and Désirée Abrahams of Global Action Plan spell out why air pollution is a major problem at work and what you can do about it.

Ventilation is key
Work is worst
Safety reps' checklist

Related stories
Change is in the air
Trade Union Clean Air Network (TUCAN)
It is so much worse at work

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