The risks of exposure to diesel engine emissions


Simon Butt-Bethlendy, Public Relations Manager at the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health, explains the dangers presented by diesel engine exhaust emissions and outlines some of the recourses available to help tackle the issue. 

Many employers around the world are becoming increasingly aware of the benefits of investing in safety and health and protecting their workers, yet work-related, occupational cancers remain a significant cause of deaths worldwide.

Best estimates indicate that at least 742,000 people die every year from cancers caused by their working environments and exposure to carcinogens. Work-related cancers harm families and communities, they cause unnecessary loss of life, and they place a huge burden on business and national economies.

One of these, diesel engine exhaust emissions (DEEES), is a mixture of gases, vapours, liquid aerosols and particles created by burning diesel fuels. These diesel fumes may contain over ten times the amount of soot particles than petrol exhaust fumes, and the mixture includes several carcinogenic substances, meaning they have the potential to cause cancer.

Are you exposed to diesel engine exhaust at work?

Workers in a wide range of professions can be exposed to diesel emissions – from construction workers and taxi drivers to those working in the retail and logistics sectors driving for a living. As well as lung cancer, DEEEs can also cause other health conditions such as asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COP).

Occupational cancer can be prevented if better measures are taken to reduce workers’ exposure. Through the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health’s (IOSH) No Time to Lose campaign, we raise awareness of important health and safety issues and provide practical advice and resources to address them and help organisations to take action.

As part of the campaign, IOSH recently launched a new resource to help workers protect themselves from DEEEs. A new pocket card provides useful information in a bite-sized form to help workers and managers better understand the dangers of diesel exposure – and ways of preventing it.

The card advises people working with or around diesel-powered equipment or vehicles to turn off engines if not needed; use tailpipe exhaust extraction systems; use workplace air extraction; wear a mask, and get trained.

It also advises people who drive for work, such as couriers, truck or taxi drivers to close the windows in their vehicle. Studies have found that ventilation settings in vehicles can reduce exposure by up to 75% while switching from open windows to closed windows and recirculated air in a car can lead to a reduction of 32% of dangerous black carbon particulate exposure in DEEEs.

Free materials to use and share

The new pocket card joins a suite of IOSH materials on DEEEs such as a fact guide, posters and a toolbox talk as part of the No Time to Lose campaign. The campaign also has free materials to help businesses manage other serious carcinogens including asbestos, silica dust and solar radiation.

More than 365 organisations from 40 countries support the campaign and have agreed to raise awareness of occupational cancer; 135 leading businesses have signed up to the pledge to manage carcinogens in the workplace, and No Time to Lose ambassadors have presented the campaign at more than 250 events worldwide to around 18,000 delegates.

Research casts new light on hazards

IOSH has also commissioned new research in this area to fill significant gaps in knowledge. We are funding researchers from King’s College London to explore the impact of diesel emissions and black carbon on the health of professional drivers.

The DEMiSt project’s preliminary findings were presented at the European Respiratory Society (ERS) International Congress in Madrid in September 2019.

The team revealed that the lives of professional drivers working in congested cities such as London are being put at risk due to exposure to back carbon levels that are on average a third higher than would be experienced at a busy roadside. The full report and other resources will be published this spring.


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