Accepting that long-term, chronic exposure to diesel fumes causes lung problems ranging from asthma and chronic obstructive pulmonary disease to cancer took several decades. Federal rules for limiting how must exhaust from diesel engines workers must breathe in only started emerging during the 1990s and early 2000s.
The Occupational Safety and Health Administration still has not issued its own standards for workplace exposure to diesel exhaust, but the agency does state on its website that
Diesel exhaust is a mixture of gases and particulates produced during the combustion of diesel fuel. The very small particles are known as diesel particulate matter (DPM), which consists primarily of solid elemental carbon (EC) cores with organic carbon (OC) compounds adhered to the surfaces. The organic carbon includes polyaromatic hydrocarbons (PAH), some of which cause cancer when tested in animals. Workers exposed to diesel exhaust face the risk of health effects ranging from irritation of the eyes and nose, headaches and nausea, to respiratory disease and lung cancer.
OSHA also lists heavy equipment operators, bridge and tunnel workers, railroad workers, oil and gas workers, loading dock workers, truck drivers, material handling operators and maintenance garage workers as the people who are most likely to regularly breath in potentially harmful amounts of diesel exhaust.
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OSHA understates the debilitating and deadly health risks of diesel exhaust exposure on the job. Back in 2008, in a fact sheet titled Occupational Exposure to Diesel Exhaust, the Clean Air Task Force highlighted research that drew causal relationships between breathing in diesel fumes and all of the following serious health conditions:
- Cardiovascular disease,
- Bladder cancer,
- Colon cancer,
- Nervous system impairment,
- Stroke, and
- Premature death from any cause.
On the last item, task force members wrote, “Three of the largest long term air pollution studies ever conducted (one tracking 1 million people in the general population in 150 cities for 16 years) found a strong association between exposure to fine particles with an elevated risk of premature death due to heart and lung disease.”
The findings regarding nervous system impairment are also worth calling out, as they come from a study of railroad workers. The slowness of response, memory loss and disordered sleep discovered among the study subjects led researchers to conclude that “crews may be unable to operate trains safely.”
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, also in 2008, issued Regulations for Emissions From Locomotives that have since done quite a bit to limit diesel fume exposure for train crews. Much more is needed. Recommendations that our Virginia-based railroad occupational illness law firm has pressed for many years include
- Changing diesel exhaust stacks on engines to ensure fumes do not trail into crew cabs and providing air-conditioning or pressurizing cabs so fumes will not enter,
- Creating diesel exhaust-free shelters for rail yard and shop workers,
- Redesigning policies and procedures to limit the time workers perform tasks near idling diesel-powered locomotives, and
- Requiring the use of masks or respirators while working in areas suffused with diesel fumes.
We believe all industries that make use of diesel engines should adopt such practices.