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Let’s Make 2021 the Year we Help Britain’s Outdoor Workers Breathe Easy

The British Safety Council's 'Time to Breathe' campaign demands urgent action to deliver a fair deal for outdoor workers | Credit: Alamy

British Safety Council

4 min read Partner content

For many outdoor workers, ambient air pollution has turned the simple act of breathing into a deadly occupational hazard. The British Safety Council’s Time to Breathe campaign is now calling for action to tackle this invisible killer

When a baby is born, its first independent act is to take a breath. It is the most natural, essential and instinctive of all human actions.

Taking a breath is the body’s way of sustaining life, providing the oxygen we all need to survive. But what if the air we breathe, instead of supporting life, is in fact shortening it? 

For many outdoor workers in the UK, this is the shocking reality of drawing breath during their working day. For them, ambient air pollution has turned the simple, human act of breathing into a deadly occupational hazard. 

This is a national health emergency and one of Britain’s biggest public health scandals 

This forgotten army of outdoor workers are the people who deliver our letters, help our children to cross the road, empty our bins, and keep us safe from crime. They deserve better protection. The British Safety Council’s ‘Time to Breathe’ campaign is determined that they will get it.  

The campaign is rapidly gaining political backing. Geraint Davies MP, Chair of the influential All-Party-Group on Air Pollution has thrown his support behind the BSC’s calls for urgent action to deliver a fair deal for outdoor workers:

 “We know that neighbourhood air pollution from diesel fumes already causes 64,000 premature deaths a year”, Davies tells us, “It is essential that employees are protected.” 

Ben Bradshaw MP agrees. “I welcome the fact that more attention is being drawn to the dangerous levels of air pollution faced by outdoor workers,” he says. “This is a national health emergency and one of Britain’s biggest public health scandals.”

The data supports Bradshaw’s analysis. Without ever truly hitting the headlines, ambient air pollution has now become the largest environmental public health issue in the UK. It causes more harm than tobacco or a lack of exercise, contributes to tens of thousands of early deaths, and costs the economy a staggering £20 billion each year.

The British Safety Council’s Time to Breathe campaign is now calling for action to tackle this silent, invisible killer.

“Let’s make 2021 the year that we finally clear the air for Britain’s army of outdoor workers,” says Damian Testa, Head of Policy at the British Safety Council. “These are the people who we depend on to keep our streets and communities safe. It is high-time they got the protection they deserve.”

To achieve this the campaign is calling for three key changes.

Firstly, better data is needed to give us a real-time picture of what the pollution levels are in an area. This can help government agencies set exposure limits to safeguard health. London is already leading the way on air pollution monitoring, but this is something that now needs central government support to be rolled out across every major city.

Secondly, is important to remember that, for Britain’s outdoor workers the street is their workplace. That is why the Time to Breathe Campaign is calling for the UK to adopt World Health Organisation limits for outdoor workers’ exposure to the most dangerous air pollutants, such as Nitrogen Dioxide and Ozone.

That call is supported by Geraint Davies: “Employers have a duty to provide safe workplace environments and this must include air quality,” he argues “That’s why the Health and Safety Executive should immediately recognise exposure to ambient air pollution as an occupational health issue.”

Finally, we need to deal with the causes of poor air quality, as well as the impacts. Everyone has a role in reducing emissions, moving towards electric vehicles, promoting cycling and walking, and reducing energy usage. Unsafe air is not something that society should simply accept.

The current passage of the Environment Bill through the House provides legislators with an opportunity to give workers the protection that they so urgently need. It is an opportunity that cannot be missed.

No one should be made ill by the job that they do. Workers on the street deserve the same legal protections as those on the factory floor. Let’s make 2021 the year we help Britain’s outdoor workers breathe easy at last.

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