Radon decays to produce a series of by-products, such as Polonium, which emits radioactive particles that are dangerous to humans when inhaled. They damage the lung cells and have long-been recognised as the cause of up to 2,000 fatal cancers per year and the third leading cause of premature deaths in the UK.
Levels of radon gas vary across the UK depending on location and building type. The risk of radon exposure in a building increases dramatically if an employee’s workplace is in a geographic area of high radon activity such as Wales and Cornwall, where the nature of the underlying bedrock means some buildings have recorded the highest readings to date.
Workplaces including basements and lower ground floors are more at greater risk due to poorer ventilation, with radon being more likely to enter the building from multiple surfaces in contact with the ground. As such, the risk is higher in densely populated cities as there is greater demand for office spaces based in lower ground rooms.
Under existing legislation, such as the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, all organisations are required to carry out a radon risk assessment. UK workplaces located on below ground floors or in an area of high radon activity, and that are occupied greater than an average of an hour per week or 52 hours per year - must carry out testing as part of the radon risk assessment.
Workplaces in areas where it is estimated that more than 1% of properties will be affected by high levels of radon - as defined by Public Health England’s UK radon heat map4 - must also carry out an assessment.
Where radon workplace levels exceed the current recommended workplace limit of 400Bq/M3, employers are required to notify the HSE and implement an active remediation programme.
However, once the new regulations come into force, the HSE ‘graded approach’ system will see the introduction of a new three tiered risk-based system of regulatory control based on notification, registration, and licensing.
As a result, organisations will need to pursue testing and remediation in the first instance and will only be required to notify HSE once remediation shows that levels cannot be reduced below the new 300Bq/m3 limit.
In addition, the higher the radiation protection risk associated with the workplace, the greater the requirements HSE will put in place. Permission will be granted to duty-holders for higher risk activities through registration and licensing.
Time to act now
According to the UK Radon Association, a not-for-profit body promoting radon awareness, it is hoped the new regulations will raise the profile of the harmful effects of radon in the workplace and increase the safety measures for tackling this.
Given the overhaul of the current system, managing radon exposure should be a key concern for organisations, especially as radon levels can be more accurately monitored during the winter months, making it an ideal time for businesses to consider assessing the risk in the workplace and implementing appropriate remediation solutions.
How is Radon measured and reduced?
As radon levels can vary and need to be regularly assessed depending on the results of an individual risk assessment – repeat testing is required for workplaces currently exceeding exposure limits while every 10 years for lower risk environments. It’s common for the majority of workplaces to be assessed every year.
To measure radon in the workplace, an independent testing body will install specialist radon detectors or digital monitors for a three-month test period, in order to establish average radon levels.
If unacceptable levels of exposure are detected, a remediation programme is put in place including a radon ‘sump’ that can be installed beneath the building, which collects radon particles and redistributes outdoors via a connecting pipe.
It’s crucial that employers communicate a radon remediation strategy with all employees to ensure they are aware of the measures put in place and to encourage compliance and, ultimately, the success of the programme.
Overall, the move to update existing legislation on radiation is welcomed, especially as figures show radon exposure accounts for around 50 per cent of the average person in the UK’s annual personal radiation dose – with a significant proportion of an employee’s daily exposure occurring in the workplace. For organisations looking to achieve regulatory compliance, clearly then the time to act is now.