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Air Pollution and Working Conditions

Friday, 25 April 2014

The recent high levels of pollution across swathes of the country caused discomfort for many people and serious health concerns for the unfortunate few.

The air pollution index from DEFRA indicated that high to very high levels of pollution were present in parts of the South East, including London. Local ambulance services reported spikes in 999 calls across the country.

The greatest risk at an individual level were the effects on those people suffering from breathing difficulties, asthma and heart problems.

The question is what legal protections exist for workers in these circumstances?

Legislation to Tackle Pollution

The pollution problems in the UK at the beginning of April 2014 were caused by an unfortunate cocktail of local emissions, emissions being carried from Europe and Saharan dust picked up by prevailing weather patterns at the time.

Although there was little that could be done about that specific event in the short term, high levels of pollution in the UK have caught the attention of the EU. The UK has faced strong criticism from the European Commission for persistently failing to deal with what it considers a serious public health issue. The Commission also began legal action against the UK in February for its failure to reduce levels of nitrogen dioxide (NO2) air pollution after 15 years of warnings.

Pollution in the Workplace

Although dramatic pollution events that affect large parts of the country are beyond the control of employers, employees are well protected by legislation from more localised pollution.

The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 (COSHH) were put in place to protect employees from harmful substances that they might come into contact with at work. Employers must prevent or reduce the exposure of employees to any harmful substances by finding out what health hazards exist, designing and implementing control measures and carrying out incident planning.

Enforcement is carried out by the Health and Safety Executive with breaches carrying the threat of criminal charges and fines.


Employees benefit from strong protection against harm that may be caused by polluting substances at work. Although this legislation does not extend to wider pollution events such as the environmental pollution that engulfed large parts of the UK, affected employees should discuss any problems with their employers.

If for example asthma sufferers of people with other conditions work outdoors and the generalised pollution put them at risk of harm, it would be reasonable to request temporary alternative working arrangements. If a health and safety breach or workplace pollution has caused harm then the employee should seek professional advice.

For specialist advice contact Peter Gourri today by email or telephone 0207 611 4848.

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