BOHS cautions that new research into occupational exposure to diesel for professional drivers highlights a COVID-19 dilemma with ventilation

BOHS welcomes new research by IOSH-sponsored Imperial College into occupational exposure to diesel for professional drivers, but cautions that it highlights a COVID-19 dilemma with ventilation.

The British Occupational Hygiene Society, a scientific charity and the Chartered Society for Workplace Health Protection, is welcoming research published by Imperial College London’s DEMist project, which uses black carbon to track exposure of professional drivers to diesel exhaust.

The study led by Dr Ian Mudway, Senior Lecturer at the MRC Centre for Environment and Health, Environmental Research Group, Imperial College London, discovered that professional drivers had four-fold greater exposure to black carbon, compared to exposure at home.

However, BOHS is concerned that the study highlights that some approaches being used by taxi drivers to mitigate against the risk of COVID-19 may inadvertently be exposing them to other risks. Ventilation, by opening windows, or through external fan ventilation could be exposing drivers to more diesel exhaust and consequently other serious health problems. However, recirculation of air can also have hazards in terms of the impact of air quality on concentration.

“In the short term, the study highlights the need for professional drivers to balance the risks of COVID-19 and diesel exhaust exposure insofar as possible. It is also of relevance to those working in buildings near busy roads who may be using natural ventilation as a COVID-19 control,” says BOHS President Kelvin Williams and Chair of the Society’s COVID-19 Control Expert Group.

In the longer term, it highlights the relationship between the general environment and sustainable workplace health protection. It suggests that professional drivers are likely to benefit most from less congestion, cleaner energy and better vehicle ventilation technology. Climate change measures can also have a direct benefit to all of our health.

The study is one of very few studies which has focused on occupational exposure to diesel fumes. It uses black carbon as an indicator of exposure, which has been recognized by the WHO as a potential universal carrier of a wide variety of chemicals of varying toxicity to the human body. This has been associated with effects on the heart, lung and brain function.

“Such studies are invaluable, but consistently remind us that designing out and preventing occupational exposures is easier, and likely to have a longer-term benefit for our health, than trying to monitor exposures and find cures for the illnesses that they cause,” comments BOHS CEO, Kevin Bampton.

The Society believes that the research highlights yet another area where workplace health is best protected by taking a sustainable approach to workplace health.

“It would be problematic if all professional drivers ended up having to wear PPE,” adds Mr Williams. “The savings could be measured not just in the cost to individual drivers and the environment, but to the health service and most, importantly, to life.”