Should construction firms be fined for contributing to poor air quality?

New research reveals that cancer risks are now 10% higher in areas with poor air quality.  Chris Chapman, Technical Support Manager for the BSG (Building Safety Group), the UK’s largest construction safety group explores further suggestions for construction firms to start treating diesel emissions in the same way as asbestos.

Air pollution contributes to a 10 per cent rise in people being diagnosed with cancer, a study has found. Authors of the recent report have said that developing the disease is 50 per cent due to genetics, however the environment also damages our DNA, changes the way genes work and can even alter important hormones.

Poor air quality, with diesel the biggest culprit, is now thought to be the cause of 40,000 deaths in the UK each year. But while cars and lorries have attracted most attention, less reported is the contribution of other polluters to the problem, particularly construction sites.

According to the most detailed air-quality study in the UK, the London Atmospheric Emissions Inventory, construction sites are responsible for approximately 7.5% of damaging nitrogen oxide (NOx) emissions, 8% of large particle emissions (PM10) and 14.5% of emissions of the most dangerous fine particles (PM2.5). While a small amount of this (about 1%) is dust from site activities like demolition, the majority comes from the thousands of diesel diggers, generators and other machines operating on sites. Yet this machinery is not held to the same emissions standards as on-road vehicles. What’s more, its proportionate impact will only get higher as on-road emissions drop.

Given the construction industry’s questionable history with asbestos, which wasn’t regulated until 1983 or completely banned until 1999 – almost 40 years after the cancer link was proven – some are sceptical that the industry will start to look at air pollution in the same way. In 2015, the Health and Safety Executive found that each year more than 230 construction workers die from cancers caused by exposure to diesel fumes, a figure it hasn’t since updated, even though more is now known about diesel’s noxious effects.

Despite this general failure to act, there are innovative firms in the industry trying to help clean up. The Greater London Authority is also attempting to clamp down on the problem. In January, London Mayor Sadiq Khan said he intends to bring in a fine like the congestion charge to be paid by firms using polluting machines, beefing up ground breaking emissions rules on central London building sites introduced under his predecessor Boris Johnson.

These reports provide some crucial insight into workforce wellbeing in the construction sector. As an industry, we need to take the issue of exposure to air pollution seriously in order to ensure a safe working environment.  Employees working in construction need to be aware of the dangers of exposure to poor air quality and how they can ensure that their employers are taking care of their physical wellbeing. With that in mind, Building Safety Group are aiming to bring the discussion of poor air quality in the construction industry to the top of the agenda by working in partnership with construction firms to help them better manage the use of pollution and working in polluted areas.  In order to ensure that those working within the construction industry are aware of the harmful side effects of air pollution, this issue needs to be urgently addressed – for everyone’s health and safety.

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About BSG

The Building Safety Group (BSG) is the UK’s largest construction safety group offering consultancy, training and non-compliance reporting services.  They are a ‘not for profit’ organisation which has been in business for over 50 years.