Treat air pollution as an occupational health issue, HSE told

Ambient air pollution should be treated as an occupational health hazard and outdoor workers should receive better protections, according to the British Safety Council.

It said the government and regulatory bodies such as the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) “continue to demonstrate a lack of interest” in the regulation of air pollution levels in the UK, which King’s College London research found could be linked to up 36,000 early deaths every year from conditions like lung cancer and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease.

In January, Department for Work and Pensions minister Sarah Newton said the HSE was not undertaking any research into the effect air pollution had on outdoor workers’ health, which the British Safety Council said “shows a clear lack of ambition in government policy, and a failure to recognise the need for research and accurate data in this area”.

Its Time to Breathe report said: “Surely such information is needed to enable employers to fulfil their duty of care to outdoor workers adequately?

“If the employer, as the Health and Safety at Work Act (1974) requires, is to provide ‘such information, instruction, training and supervision as is necessary to ensure, so far as is reasonably practicable, the health and safety at work of his employees’, then it is imperative that the employer is furnished with this information from the outset.”

It said the HSE must recognise exposure to ambient air pollution as an occupational health issue, so that action can be taken to protect workers against the effects of regular exposure to noxious air.

The report also urged the UK to adopt air pollution limits set by the World Health Organization (WHO). Currently, the UK follows the EU Ambient Air Quality Directive for threshold limit values on ambient air, but these limits are higher than those set by the WHO.

Lawrence Waterman, chairman of the British Safety Council, said: “The impact of air pollution on people working in large cities is starting to be recognised as a major public health risk. However, we are yet to see any true commitment to addressing this issue by the government and the regulators.

“The social and economic implications of ambient air pollution are clear. It must be recognised as an occupational health hazard, much like some toxic substances such as asbestos. Breathing clean air is not a privilege but a basic human right for the thousands of people who are undertaking vital work outdoors.”

According to the WHO, ambient air pollution accounts for 29% of all lung cancer deaths and diagnoses; 17% of acute lower respiratory infection deaths and diagnoses; 24% of stroke deaths; 25% of coronary artery disease deaths and diagnoses and 43% of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease deaths and diagnoses.

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