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Air quality in the workplace and managing associated health risks

At the age of 9 years old, Ella Kissi-Debrah became the first person with pollution listed as a cause of death in the UK after an inquest concluded that exposure to excessive air pollution in London was a material contribution to her death.

With awareness around air quality on the rise, there is a growing realisation that thousands of UK citizens are likely to be exposed ill health risks due to poor air quality in the workplace. Consequently, employers should consider ways in which they may be able to improve air quality and manage the associated ill health risks.

THE LAW

Poor indoor air quality is a health and safety risk and has been linked to illnesses such as asthma, COPD, lung cancer, irritation of airways, headaches, nausea and lethargy.

All employers have a duty under the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 (“The HSWA”) to provide a safe and healthy work environment, which includes providing safe and healthy air quality, a duty which is supported by the Workplace (Health, safety and Welfare) Regulations 1992 (“The 1992 Regulations”). The 1992 Regulations state that “Effective and suitable provision shall be made to ensure that every enclosed workplace is ventilated by a sufficient quantity of fresh or purified air."

To assist employers in complying with their legal duties, a range of guidance already exists which employers should familiarise themselves with and implement where practicable.

WORKPLACE POLLUTANTS

The risk of different workplace pollutants will vary depending on the location and nature of each workplace and employers should carry out risk assessments to identify and monitor what pollutants their employees are most at risk from. Examples include:

  • Fine Particulate matter (PM): a mix of solids and liquids, including carbon, complex organic chemicals, sulphates, nitrates, dust, dust mites and water particles suspended in the air. Large quantities of manmade PM are produced in industry and building work. For example, through burning wood and coal or welding. PM can also be found in office settings, for example in the form of dust, dust mites and water particles.
  • Gases: examples are carbon monoxide, nitrogen oxide, and sulphur dioxide. Industries that burn fossil fuels are at higher risk of producing these.
  • Volatile Organic Chemicals (“VOCs”): various cleaning, decorating and building products may contain VOCs. For example, washing detergents, furniture polish, carpet cleaners, paint and strippers, varnishes and glues, pesticides and fungicides, cement and coating materials.
  • Building Materials: asbestos has been banned in the UK since 1999, however, some insulation, flooring and roofing in older buildings may contain it. Breathing in asbestos fibres can lead to lung diseases including asbestosis and mesothelioma. Whilst not as harmful as asbestos, fiberglass (a type of insulation) can also become part of the dust in the air if disturbed and can irritate airways.

IMPROVING WORKPLACE AIR QUALITY

Once employers have carried out a risk assessment, they should identify measures that they can take to decrease the risk of air pollutants and achieve good indoor air quality. Measures can include:  

  • Regular Occupational Monitoring: Employers should implement Air Quality Assessments/Surveys and Audits to ensure concentrations are below the legal exposure limits.
  • Ventilation: Good quality ventilation systems should be installed at appropriate locations to efficiently draw in and circulate outdoor air which is free of impurities. The operation of ventilation systems should be inspected and cleaned regularly to avoid the risk of increasing indoor pollution by spreading biological contaminants that have multiplied in cooling towers, humidifiers, dehumidifiers and air conditioners and ventilation systems should have filtering systems where necessary to remove other pollutants such as particulates.
  • Personal Protective Equipment (“PPE”): where workers are exposed to harmful fumes or fibres, employers must ensure appropriate PPE is supplied. It is important to note that from 6th April 2022, new PPE regulations extend employers’ duties regarding PPE to limb (b) workers.
  • Regular cleaning: a clean workplace has lower levels of mould, dust and contaminants that could spread through the air. Employers should aim to use eco-friendly cleaning products that do not release VOCs.
  • Indoor Plants: plants can help promote indoor air quality by absorbing carbon dioxide and releasing oxygen into the air.

With an increasingly wider return to the workplace following Covid-19, indoor air quality should be high on an employer’s agenda and accounted for in health and safety budgeting. Hybrid working patterns can also usefully be deployed by employers to reduce vehicle movements and increased risks of harmful exposure, especially during peak travel times. Good ventilation also remains one of the key controls for employers to control the spread of COVID-19 in occupational settings.

Following the conclusion of the Inquest into the death of Ella Kissi-Debrah the Coroner issued prevention of future deaths reports. This prompted the Government to announce that it was targeting late 2022 for the introduction of new legal targets for particulate matter and other pollutants, as well as developing more sophisticated population exposure reduction targets to drive reductions, not just in pollution “hotspots”, but in all areas.  Employers are surely therefore likely to be called on to play their role in the fight to improve air quality, and this will likely only succeed with the introduction of cleaner technologies and vehicles, more energy efficient workplaces and hybrid working.

If you would like more information in relation to this or any regulatory risk topic, please contact our Business Risk and Regulation team for specialist legal advice.

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