The International Agency for Research on Cancer has classified diesel engine exhaust emissions (DEEEs) as a ‘definite’ carcinogen. Fumes combine a mixture of particles, chemical molecules and gasses, of which the particulates are easily inhaled into the respiratory tract. 

In fact, many breathing difficulties have been associated with the emissions. Within a few minutes of exposure diesel emissions can cause irritation in the respiratory tract, and with extended exposure, complications can quickly escalate. It’s therefore vital that union members are aware of the various toxic effects, as they may be eligible for compensation. 

Many roles in the workplace may expose union members to higher levels of emissions - often exacerbated by confined spaces or inadequate ventilation. Rail workers, professional heavy vehicles drivers and miners could all potentially be exposed, as well as those in related industries who spend time in depots, car parks, warehouses or even fire stations. 

High levels of white smoke, prevalent in bus garages when vehicles are started from cold in the morning, regularly causes upper respiratory tract irritation, while prolonged contact to blue or black smoke can lead to coughing and breathlessness. For bus drivers, research has found that the risk of mortality from lung cancer and bladder cancer is 40% higher and 29% higher respectively. 

Research has also found an increased risk of lung cancer for lorry and HGV drivers of as much as 50-60% for those who have been driving for over 18 years. 

The law 

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulation 2002 (COSHH) requires employers to carry out a suitable and sufficient assessment of the health risks that arise from exposure to hazardous substances. 

The law also requires regular risk assessments of the potential level of exposure to fumes, and identify and implement measures to control it. Often this means substituting diesel with a safer fuel, an alternative technology or even the use of battery powered vehicles. But if an assessment finds that exposure is unavoidable, employers must investigate and implement the controls necessary for reducing the risk. This may mean that methods of work have to change, or the workplace or working practices need to be adapted to eliminate the danger. 

Simple controls 

Exposure can often be reduced with simple and efficient measures. Whether it is regularly servicing truck and engines, installing roof or wall mounted extraction systems, or even just keeping warehouse doors open to circulate air inside, employers can make important steps towards ensuring a safe workplace. 

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The team of experts at Thompsons Solicitors regularly contribute to blogs, journals and the wider media on issues relating to industrial disease and the trade union movement. This piece was written by head of industrial disease, John Carlisle, and was originally written for UNITE North East, Yorkshire and Humber.