Diesel emissions exposure: what are the risks and appropriate measures?

Diesel engine exhaust fumes pose a significant health risk for those who are overexposed to them. What makes diesel emissions dangerous? And how can you protect employees from the risks? 

Back in 2012, the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) added diesel emissions to the list of carcinogens. Indeed, research shows that diesel engine exhaust causes an increased risk of lung cancer and possibly bladder cancer. Are your employees regularly exposed to diesel engine exhaust fumes? Find out how to protect their health and safety in this blog.


Diesel emissions: what makes them dangerous?

The combustion process of a diesel engine releases a complex mixture of substances – better known as diesel engine emissions (DEE) or diesel exhaust – consisting of toxic and irritating gases and fine particles. Those fine particles contain carcinogenic substances, such as heavy metals and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons, or PAHs. Because the particles are so fine, they can penetrate deep into the lungs when inhaled and even find their way into the bloodstream.

The composition of the mixture depends on the type of engine and fuel. Yet it is always harmful to human health. For example, short-term exposure to diesel exhaust can cause eye, nose, and throat irritation. In the longer term, exposure to the dangerous mixture causes inflammatory reactions in the respiratory tract and can lead to an increased risk of cardiovascular disease, in addition to an increased risk of cancer. 

When are employees (over)exposed to diesel emissions?

The Institute of Occupational Medicine (IOM) estimates that around 3.6 million European employees may be exposed to excessive emission levels from diesel engines. Those engines are used in various professional vehicles and machines, including lorries, forklifts, generators, agricultural and industrial machinery, and construction machinery. In addition, 40.8% of passenger cars are still powered by diesel engines.

The highest emission levels from diesel engines are measured at underground work sites and (semi-)enclosed aboveground places of employment, such as warehouses and garages. But employees who are often in traffic also regularly come into contact with the harmful exhaust mixture.

Occupational groups that are typically exposed the most to diesel engine emissions: 

- Warehouse workers, using a diesel-powered vehicle in the warehouse

- Mechanics, mainly in bus or lorry terminals

- Lorry and taxi drivers

- Firefighters

- Shipping, aviation, and railway workers

- Construction workers

- Farmers

How do you protect employees?

Prevention and control of occupational exposure to diesel emissions are essential. And for that, the mandatory chemical agent risk analysis is the ideal starting point. The employer or prevention adviser thus identifies the hazardous chemicals in the specific workplaces and assesses the potential risks to the safety and health of employees. By also including diesel engine emissions in this overview, they can make a targeted action plan based on the results.

Are there too many emissions from diesel engines in the workplace? Then these measures can prevent a lot of harm:

  • Replace diesel engines with alternative energy sources. Consider, for example, engines powered by electricity or natural gas.
  • Renew diesel engines regularly to ensure they always meet the latest European emission standards.
  • Equip older diesel engines with an exhaust after-treatment system, such as a diesel oxidation catalyst (DOC) or diesel particulate filter (DPF).
  • Regularly schedule thorough maintenance of diesel engines.
  • Install an air ventilation system with sufficient capacity in enclosed areas where diesel engines are used.
  • Never run (diesel) engines unnecessarily, especially in an indoor area. 
  • Provide respiratory protection only as a last resort.

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