Air pollution levels in the UK threaten outdoor lone workers’ health

It’s that time of year again, when daily weather bulletins are talking about UV and pollen levels – and about air pollution. A hundred years ago, poor air quality was more usually about coal-burning causing dense fogs in urban areas during winter. Today, it’s almost the opposite problem; the worst air pollution episodes are often when the summer sun shines. While particulates from diesel vehicles are still a vital issue, invisible gases also pose massive challenges. Nitrous and sulphurous oxides (NOx and SOx), as well as ground-level ozone, carbon monoxide and dioxide, wreak havoc on public health.

The British Safety Council recently launched a report which provides compelling evidence to recognise ambient air pollution as an occupational health hazard in Britain. In ‘Impact of air pollution on the health of outdoor workers’, the charity presents demands to limit the dangers of air pollution to outdoor workers’ health. For outdoor lone workers, the problems may be exacerbated if they fail to follow safety protocols, such as using PPE.

Report on the impact of air pollution on outdoor workers

Many consider that air pollution is the biggest environmental risk to public health in the UK. An estimated 36,000 early deaths a year in the UK occur due to poor air quality. Research from King’s College London suggests that more than 9,400 people die prematurely from this cause in London alone. Ambient air pollution is linked to cancer, lung and heart disease, type-2 diabetes, infertility and early dementia.

Several pilot schemes are beginning to monitor and measure the levels of air pollution experienced by people working and living in London. Some action has already been taken; in April 2019, London introduced the Ultra-Low Emissions Zone (ULEZ) for vehicles. At the other end of the spectrum, the Europe-wide Medium Combustion Plant Directive came into force in December 2018, targeting industrial plants and larger commercial boilers. However, the British Safety Council criticises the government and regulatory bodies such as the HSE over lack of overarching regulation. For instance, there is no guidance on air pollution limits for any workers, let alone outdoor lone workers.

‘Time to Breathe’ for outdoor lone workers

In March 2019, the British Safety Council launched its Time to Breathe campaign, which focuses on the protection of outdoor workers from air pollution. As the British Safety Council puts it: “Breathing clean air is not a privilege but a basic human right for the thousands of people who are undertaking vital work outdoors.” The campaign is a demand for action from policymakers, regulators and industry leaders. It urges the UK to adopt the World Health Organisation’s exposure limits for key pollutants. Additionally, it calls on the government to treat ambient air pollution as an occupational health issue, and to adopt a Workplace Exposure Limit for Diesel Engine Exhaust Emissions (DEEE).

Employers can start to recognise air pollution as an occupational health hazard. They have special procedures in place for dealing with some toxic substances such as asbestos. So a good first step is finding a similar way of protecting against diesel emissions and other pollutants. The British Safety Council has some good practical steps which employers and their outdoor lone workers can take to limit exposure to air pollution. For instance, employers can introduce pollution barriers for roadside work. They can schedule outdoor work outside rush-hours, especially on busy or narrow streets. And outdoor lone workers can adopt good habits. This includes getting up to stretch regularly if they’re working in a kneeling position next to a busy road.

Canairy helps London-based outdoor lone workers

One cornerstone of Time to Breathe is a new mobile app called Canairy, created in co-operation with King’s College London. This gives London-based outdoor workers and their employers insights into pollution and how to reduce exposure to it. Combining data from the London Air Quality Network (LAQN) pollution map and the worker’s GPS, Canairy calculates an individual’s exposure to pollution on an hourly basis.

We welcome this advance for outdoor lone workers to be able to understand the risks they may face. But we’d like to see improvements to pollution monitoring across the UK. That way, outdoor lone workers across all regions can enjoy the same accuracy in emissions data as those in London, and take proactive steps to protect their health.

For details of the Time to Breathe campaign and the Canairy app, and information for employers, visit the British Safety Council website here: https://www.britsafe.org/campaigns-policy/time-to-breathe-air-pollution-campaign/time-to-breathe/

#OutdoorLoneWorkers #TimeToBreathe #HealthAndSafety

To find out about other ways to protect outdoor lone workers, including our Safe Hub lone worker safety system, contact one of the team today.

Post by Henry Robinson

As the Account Manager at Lone Worker Solutions (LWS), Henry introduces new clients to Safe Hub, our award-winning system to protect and monitor lone workers. Safe Hub is a package of buddy, proactive, reactive, broadcast and virtual barrier protection for lone workers.