British Safety Council calls for research to examine the impact of air pollution on the health of London underground workers

Posted On: 
7th November 2019

The British Safety Council have commented on new Financial Times research which measured the air quality in the carriages of the London Underground, terming the findings "alarming".

Earlier this year, Hubbub launched its Air We Share campaign which included monitoring air pollution exposure of people working and living in London. Most were users of the tube and their monitors had shown that they were regularly breathing in high levels of pollution. The deeper lines of the London Underground are much more polluted than those closer to the surface, with overground lines being ten times cleaner. High concentration of particulates, often referred to as ‘tube dust’ consisted mostly of iron oxide which comes from the wear of tracks, wheel and breaks. This is a result of the age of the underground system and the fact that large parts of the network are located in the deep, poorly ventilated tunnels.

The Financial Times investigation measuring the air quality in the carriages of the London Underground have added further evidence of this alarming state of affairs. In fact, it showed that the Tube is the most polluted part of the capital, with Central, Victoria and Northern lines proving most risky for commuters’ health.

The FT findings are very worrying. They show that the levels of pollution on some of the underground lines are ten times above the guidelines set by the World Health Organisation. In this context, the findings of King’s College study showing that more than 9,000 premature deaths each year in London are attributed to the long-term exposure to air pollution, aren’t perhaps so surprising. If London commuters, passing through the London network, are so badly affected by air pollution, what impact it has on London Underground workers – the drivers, cleaners and traffic operation staff – who spend the whole of their working day in that environment?

At the British Safety Council, a charity focused on worker health, safety and wellbeing we are very concerned about the health of outdoor workers who spend week after week in the ambient environment, breathing in toxic air. Outdoor workers face a potentially higher risk of heart attacks, strokes and acute asthma than many people who live and work in our cities.

Outdoor workers have been overlooked in the air quality debate, and the FT investigation again focuses only on the health of the commuters. Although this is a very important step in the campaign for better air quality in London, we would like to see a cohort study undertaken to examine the impact of air pollution on the health of underground workers, including drivers. We are calling for this study to begin immediately. We need to act now. Otherwise we will look back, as we do with asbestos, and ask ourselves why we failed to prevent harm and face a huge bill

In March this year, the British Safety Council launched its Time to Breathe campaign, which is focused on the protection of outdoor workers from air pollution. The cornerstone of the campaign is Canairy, the first mobile app that gives outdoor workers and their employers insights into pollution and how to reduce staff exposure to it. It has been created in co-operation with King’s College London. We are calling the government, regulators and employers to ensure that:

  • The government immediately recognises exposure to ambient air pollution as an occupational health hazard.
  • The government invests in improved pollution monitoring across the UK. Reducing exposure requires detailed pollution measurements and all UK regions have the right to the same accuracy in emissions data as London.
  • The UK adopts the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) exposure guidelines for nitrogen dioxide, particulate matter (PM2.5 and PM10) and ozone.