In 2009, the singer Jordin Sparks asked how she was supposed to breathe with no air. It is a question that many city dwellers have been echoing since the song’s release, especially given the 101 high air pollution alerts that have been issued in London since May 2016. In the first three months of this year, the area near Vauxhall Bridge in London has reportedly already breached its air pollution limits set for 2019.
During times of high pollution, adults and children with heart or lung problems are warned to reduce strenuous physical exercise, especially whilst outside, while people with asthma are advised that they may need to use their inhalers more often. It poses a clear health risk.
But remaining indoors at times of high pollution is a not a luxury many have, certainly not those who work outdoors or near busy roads, and yet very few air pollution campaigns take such workers into account when considering who is most at risk. This is something that London-based charity The British Safety council has sought to rectify with its own campaign Time to Breathe.
‘It started about two years ago,’ explains Matthew Holder, head of campaigns and engagement at the British Safety Council. ‘We have a magazine called Safety Management and I was writing an article about air pollution on a more general level, and in researching that article, it struck me that there was very little about the occupational side of air pollution, like how it might affect the health of someone whose job it is to work on or near a busy road. There’s quite a lot of evidence about the impact on older people, and children, but not a lot of talk of what can do to protect the health of outdoor workers.’
A report by the Royal College of Physicians specifically mentioned the risk to people who worked alongside busy roads, whilst the International Agency for Research on Cancer, which is part of the World Health Organisation (WHO), published advice six years ago saying that air pollution is carcinogenic. It also highlighted the dangers this posed to people who work outdoors. Holder decided, therefore, that this matter needed more than an article; it needed a campaign to refocus the evidence and trigger the debate on a much wider scale.
Working with Frank Kelly, chair in environmental health at King’s College, London, who had been looking into air pollution, Holder considered ways to address the problem which led to the creation of a mobile app, Canairy, specifically for employers and outdoor workers to measure air pollution around them, and thus potentially reduce their exposure.
Holder explains: ‘The idea of the app is that it will provide data on where exposure is happening so [employers] can start to schedule work, or even during a high pollution episode, they can bring their workers inside. It’s about helping them to make informed decisions. There are no laws as such on this area. We have health and safety laws where employers have a duty of care to look after the health of their workers, but, for example, the Health and Safety Executive doesn’t regulate ambient air pollution. It regulates work-related exposures to various pollutants like silica dust, but there’s no specific regulation on this topic. So we have to show employers the benefits.’
Indeed, when asking the Council’s members what they thought about air pollution, many were concerned but were unsure could really be done. Yet there are solutions, such as work rotations, where no single employee is exposed to a high concentration of air pollution for a long length of time. However, employers need the data to back up these decisions.
Holder notes: ‘There are employers who have concerns about the impact on their workers’ health; some of the companies we’ve spoken to, it is on their agenda. With the app, we’ve made something that can actually inform their decisions. It takes the edge off the exposure. You can’t remove people from air exposure entirely but you can give them information that will help them make better decisions.’
Canairy, so named after Holder’s mum pointed out the similarity to the traditional role of canaries in mines, is currently in its trial period, but more than 50 organisations contacted the British Safety Council within a week of its launch in order to pilot the app with their employees. One of the first companies to test Canairy is Kier Highways, who are using the app with regards to its London Highway Alliance contract with Transport for London.
It has gone down well with management so far. Mitch Solanki, managing director at Kier Local Highways, explains: ‘This proactive approach to utilising the latest technology will help us reduce our people’s exposure to air pollution, which is a serious concern for all responsible employers.’
‘For the app, it’s really about the employer,’ asserts Holder. ‘Then it’s about the employer passing on the app to the employee, because they’re the ones taking it out to collect the data. The app also gives the worker tips on how to reduce their exposure in the here and now.’
Holder is also clear that such data will help form the debate when it comes to shaping future policy. ‘If more and more people use this app, and we get good data on exposure levels, then we can start to make an argument about whether there should be time limits for how long you work outdoors during a high pollution episode?’ he says. ‘Should we follow WHO guidelines for exposure? We’re giving employers free information, an overview of the evidence, posters to put up in their workplaces. We’re making people aware of the issue and getting them to take it more seriously.’
It takes time to get legislative change, but campaigning is nothing new for the British Safety Council. Holder explains: ‘We’ve been a campaigning organisation for 60 years now. One of our first campaigns from the very off was to have seat belt laws, which we campaigned on for 30 years. So we have a long history of pushing difficult subjects, which are quite controversial, and this is no different.’
The Time to Breathe campaign officially launched on 12 March. Holder is pleased with its progress, but is keen to get more employers involved and responsive to the issue.
He concludes: ‘We talk about data and exposure and pollution, but it’s really about health. Some organisations, where they don’t have such relations with trade unions, can be quite wary of making this information available. Other organisations have a different view. I think there’s a big job to be done to keep momentum going and continue to get app used. For workers own sake and also so we can get the data to will inform our policy development.’