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Diesel exhaust is a major workplace killer - we need action now

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It is estimated that 800 cases of cancer are caused by workplace exposure to diesel exhaust emissions every year.

Yet although diesel exhaust is one of the biggest workplace killers, British health and safety regulations still do not recognise it as a carcinogen. That should not stop trade unions ensuring that action is taken to prevent this exposure.

At European level, there are some moves that might help us tackle the dangers of diesel exhaust. The European Commission has agreed, after years of pressure from trade unions, to include these emissions under the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive which is the main directive covering workplace cancers. Hopefully, that will lead to the HSE agreeing to include diesel exhaust as a carcinogen under the main UK regulations (COSHH). If this happens it will require employers to take additional precautions to protect workers.

The European Commission also proposes a new workplace limit for diesel exhaust. British unions have always had concerns over the use of workplace limits for any carcinogen, as employers see them as a green light to expose workers up to that limit, despite the fact that there is no safe limit for carcinogens and there is a legal requirement to reduce exposure as far as is reasonably practical – not just to the legal limit value. Also, as we know from other carcinogens with a limit value, such as silica, the HSE will only prosecute if exposure is above the workplace exposure limit, even where it is possible to reduce exposure further.

The proposed limit value for diesel exhaust is 0.05 mg/m³. That will certainly save a lot of lives in areas of very high exposure but is still well above what can be achieved in most workplaces. It has been estimated that even at a third the level proposed, there will be four deaths for every thousand people exposed at that rate during their working lives.

Another concern is that the standard is only for one of the hundreds of chemicals found in diesel exhaust, which is elemental carbon. New diesel engines have far lower levels of this, but higher levels of many of the other chemicals. Also, some new bio-mass diesel engines seem to produce much smaller particles. These are likely to be more dangerous as they can get further into your lungs, but also you need far more to make up the same mass, so a set limit value based on mass is not necessarily suitable for all types of diesel exhaust emission.

That does not mean that we should not welcome this move. At the moment, the level of awareness about the dangers of diesel fuel is appalling, and any enforcement action is rare. Having diesel exhaust emissions classed as a carcinogen, and having a limit, even at the level proposed, will help considerably in workplaces where we have the highest exposures and the greatest risk. It is only because of years of campaigning by the trade union movement that we have finally managed to get the European Commission to go this far, so we should see it as an important victory.

Nevertheless, trade unions need to ensure that their employers take action to remove or reduce the risk from diesel exhaust to the lowest level possible, regardless of any limit. That is why the TUC has published a guide to diesel exhaust that highlights the practical and simple steps that your employer can take to protect their workers.

It also explains some of the issues around exposure levels and monitoring. But the guide gives a clear and simple message to all trade union health and safety representatives. If you can see or smell diesel exhaust emissions in your workplace then you have a problem and your employer needs to sort it.

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