Workers are exposed to diesel exhaust in many workplaces. More attention should be paid to monitoring and reducing this exposure. Studies have linked high, repeated exposure to diesel exhaust to an increased risk of lung cancer.
In Finland, about 50,000 workers are exposed to diesel exhaust at work. Exposure can be significant in, for example, mines, tunnel work, factories, warehouses, and terminals in which diesel machines are used.
Diesel exhaust irritates the eyes and airways, and can affect the functioning of the lungs. Research has found high, repeated exposure to diesel exhaust to be connected to an increased risk of lung cancer. It has also been suggested that this exposure may affect the heart and circulatory systems. These are the findings of a review on the health effects of diesel exhaust recently published by specialists at the Finnish Institute of Occupational Health (FIOH) and a Nordic and Dutch specialist group.
“Exposure to exhaust fumes at workplaces is too often neglected,” says Senior Specialist Tiina Santonen of FIOH. “Attention should be paid to the monitoring and management of exposure, especially in mines and tunnel worksites in which concentrations can reach very high levels.”
The review of the health effects of diesel exhaust by FIOH’s specialists, in collaboration with the Nordic Expert Group for Criteria Documentation of Health Risks from Chemicals, NEG and the Dutch Expert Committee on Occupational Safety, DECOS was published on 27.5.2016.
Various methods for reducing exposure
The emissions from diesel engines that are equipped with new particle filters and catalyzers are clearly lower than they used to be. Exposure can be reduced by regularly servicing engines, minimizing idling, improving ventilation, and ensuring that work machines’ cabs are airtight and their filters in good condition. Some diesel engines can be replaced by ones that run on electric or gas. An exhaust extraction system fitted onto an exhaust pipe is a good alternative in diesel engine service work, for example.
Target levels can help manage exposure and health risks
FIOH has proposed target levels for exhaust fumes in workplace air that can be used to manage exposure to diesel exhaust. Trying to comply with these levels results in lower health risks, and achieving them is often possible through reasonable measures at many workplaces.
FIOH’s target levels for diesel exhaust are 5 µg/m3 (8-hour average concentration) when measured as elemental carbon, which is found in exhaust fume particles, and 0.2 ppm (15 min average concentration) when measured as nitrogen dioxide. In mines and underground construction sites, the corresponding target level is 20 µg/m3 (8 h) and 0.5 ppm (15 min).