Air pollution problem for outdoor workers

Materials World magazine
1 Jul 2019

Ambient air pollution levels are coming under scrutiny, sparking health warnings for outdoor workers. Ceri Jones finds out more.

Continuously high levels of pollution encountered by the UK’s 36,000 outdoor workers are being largely ignored, according to several organisations, including the British Safety Council (BSC).

Growing concern for the long-term health of outdoor workers has prompted the set-up of awareness campaigns to challenge the notion that ambient air is too difficult to record or regulate.

One such initiative is the BSC’s Time to Breathe, which aggregated ambient air pollution research and published its findings the white paper, The impact of air pollution on the health of outdoor workers, in May 2019. This was supported by UK charity Hubbub’s The Air We Share campaign, and included information from the World Health Organisation (WHO), King’s College London and the Royal College of Physicians.

‘We know air pollution is constantly breaking EU and WHO guidelines on air quality limits, and some people work outdoors for many hours, with long-term exposure month after month, year after year,’ BSC Head of Campaigns and Engagement, Matthew Holder, told Materials World.

Focusing on London for the first phase, he said that ultra-low emission zones and use of cleaner fuels will help in future but progress is not quick enough to support current outdoor workers.

‘Some organisations are telling me they see a future legal case on this issue, where this will be tested in court due to occupational illness as a result of working outdoors. They see that coming and want to do something about it now rather than later,’ Holder added.

Data gathering

Many cities measure air quality at monitoring stations, which are, obviously, static. ‘What’s poorly known is how people experience pollution as they move throughout the city on an individual level – how much are we really breathing in?’ Hubbub Creative Partner, Elle McAll told Materials World.

To better understand the situation, Hubbub polled 3,000 people nationally and chose 13 to represent a variety of occupations, transport journeys and routines. They were each given a monitor to wear that would record exposure to carbon black, as this can be used to calculate levels of particulate matter under 2.5 micrometres.

One participant was a Murphy engineer working in a site office at King’s Cross. ‘He was six times more exposed than people working in an office. This fits a lot of other King’s College research that people who are working outdoors a lot, particularly in the construction section, are one of the most vulnerable groups when it comes to pollution exposure,’ McAll said.

HGV drivers were by far the highest exposed, as well as those working in construction, infrastructure and waste collection or street cleaning.

Send in the Canairy

The BSC and Kings College have developed an app called Canairy to continuously assess personal pollution exposure of outdoor workers. It is only available by application to ensure quality of data. ‘It requires an employer to request from us an access code. This is where you start a conversation about air pollution – you want to gain employer buy-in from the beginning,’ said Holder.

‘The information this provides means employers can use it to make better decisions about when and where they place their workers outdoors, and the other side is the lobbying effort to give us evidence to make certain calls for changes we want to see in the future.’

In the meantime, the BSC and Hubbub recommend practical changes, such as installing solid pop-up barriers next to roadside works which can physically block 10-20% of traffic fumes, scheduling shifts outside of peak traffic times and ensuring people aren’t being repeatedly placed at the same high-pollution sites.

From data to action

Tackling ambient air pollution may seem unnecessary, but according to McAll, increasing numbers of workers are questioning employers’ efforts and it is becoming harder to ignore. ‘Most businesses don’t want to be caught on the back foot – they want to be doing something, particularly when it comes to health and wellbeing and their role within it,’ she said.

‘We are presenting these initial findings to companies now and the next step is to develop specific strands of activity that build on these insights – working with companies to get a deeper understanding, to develop action plans and try to find solutions.’

For the BSC, it is a race to take action now before strict rules are forced upon the industry. Holder said the group has raised the issue with DEFRA, the HSE and the Department for Work and Pensions to get regulators onboard. ‘They issue guidance on sunlight exposure so I don’t see why they can’t issue guidance on air pollution as it affects workers. It’s time to start a conversation between the employer/supervisor and their employers.’

Read the white paper here: