Diesel fumes are a hazardous substance that can increase the risk of lung cancer, which like all work-related cancers is preventable

Paul Haxell

Historically there has been an imbalance in how we address the burden of safety and ill health in construction. It’s well known that for every worker killed on a UK construction site, there are another 100 who die as a result of occupational diseases that can be attributed to having worked in the sector.

It is estimated that more than 230 construction workers die from occupational cancer each year in Britain as a result of past exposure to diesel engine exhaust emissions, says data from the HSE. This equates to around 6.5% of all construction-related cancer deaths annually.

At the very least, short-term, high-level exposures to diesel exhaust fumes can irritate the eyes and lungs. Continuous exposure to these fumes can cause long-term or chronic respiratory ill health with symptoms including coughing and feeling breathless. At worst, if people are exposed to diesel engine exhaust fumes regularly and over a long period, there is an increased risk of getting lung cancer.

At worst, if people are exposed to diesel engine exhaust fumes regularly and over a long period, there is an increased risk of getting lung cancer

The fact is that work-related cancer is preventable. In the UK, employers are legally required to consider the risk of cancer. Diesel fumes are covered by the Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) Regulations, as well as by the more generic Health and Safety at Work Act and Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations. By law, employers should assess the risk of people being affected by diesel fumes and then work to either stop exposure or reduce it with suitable control measures. However, there is currently no diesel exhaust fumes exposure limit.

Encouragingly, great strides have been made and continue to be made to fill the gaps in our knowledge on occupational health in construction, particularly when it comes to raising awareness of work-related cancer. Recent research from Imperial College London has prompted UK industry generally to re-evaluate its approach based upon a forward interpolation of historic data. This doesn’t yet effectively capture the improvement in diesel engine technology or manufacturer activity following publication of the Imperial College report on occupational cancer.

By managing the risk and understanding what produces the high-risk areas of concern, we can reduce the levels to which workers are exposed to diesel fumes. Practical controls to mitigate the exposure risk follow the hierarchy of risk control. These could include consideration of switching to other forms of fuel where possible, replacing old engines with newer versions with lower emissions and making sure that engines are maintained properly. Also, the use of local exhaust ventilation, good general ventilation in fixed or enclosed workplaces and making sure that engines are turned off when they are not needed.

Diesel fumes within the site boundary are managed as an occupational health issue, while emissions spreading off site could become a public health concern. Bodies such as the Construction Plant-hire Association have been actively involved with the GLA around the development of planning guidance and the associated plant standards to minimise emissions and maintain air quality standards.

The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health is raising awareness of occupational cancers through its No Time to Lose campaign. For more information, including free guidance related to diesel engine exhaust emissions, visit www.notimetolose.org.uk.

Paul Haxell chair of the Construction Group of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health