Employers have been told they are legally obliged to protect their staff from diesel fumes — and could be sued if workers develop cancer later in life.
The Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) and Health and Safety Executive (HSE) have issued the warnings because diesel fumes have been reclassified as a “grade 1 carcinogen”, meaning they are a “definite cause of cancer”. As many as 500,000 UK jobs are affected.
The warning applies to a huge range of employees, including professional drivers, bus and railway station staff, rubbish collectors, garage mechanics and warehouse and construction workers.
The reclassification, by the International Agency for Research on Cancer, part of the World Health Organisation, came after it found that people exposed to diesel fumes at work were up to 40% more likely to develop lung cancer.
“In Britain, over 650 people a year die of lung or bladder cancer as a result of being exposed to diesel exhaust fumes at work,” said the IOSH. “About 800 new cases of cancer linked to diesel exhaust exposure are registered each year.”
The HSE said diesel fumes’ status as a carcinogen meant they were covered by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations. Employers must regularly assess dangers to staff and minimise exposure or face prosecution.
Researchers from Imperial College London say 500,000 UK workers are exposed to diesel.
Professional drivers are badly affected because air intakes suck in exhaust fumes from the vehicle in front.
Professor John Cherrie from the Institute of Occupational Medicine, who advises the IOSH, said that when a car fitted with monitors drove behind a diesel vehicle, particle concentrations shot up to two to four times the background level but sometimes much higher. “Some very high levels were measured behind buses with low-level exhausts,” he added.
Frank Kelly, professor of environmental health at Kings College London, who chairs the government’s advisory committee on air pollution, said drivers should stay clear of diesels. “In slow-moving or stationary traffic drivers should keep at least a car-length from the vehicle in front, especially diesels.
“In queues or slow moving traffic keep your windows closed and your air-con on recirculation. Ideally you should also avoid driving at all in rush hour.”
Such practical advice may have to be issued formally to staff by many organisations, who must also monitor their employees’ health.
“In the UK, health surveillance is compulsory for workers exposed to carcinogens,” said the IOSH. “Surveillance should be carried out by an occupational health professional.”
Such obligations will raise costs for organisations such as construction and transport firms, garages and police forces. However, the IOSH said the savings in human health would be far greater.