4 April 2014

The trade union Unison has urged employers to be aware of the health and comfort of outdoor workers this week, as air pollution reaches high levels in parts of Britain due to a combination of dust from the Sahara desert as well as local and European emissions.

According to Public Health England (PHE), in the last few days a combination of local emissions, light winds, pollution from the continent and dust blown over from the Sahara have caused a spike in the UK Air Quality Index compiled by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra).

The government agency confirmed that the higher than usual levels of pollution may affect the health of some people.

A source said that while most people will not be affected by short term peaks in air pollution, some individuals, such as older people, those with existing heart or lung conditions, and people with asthma, may experience increased symptoms.

Affected groups are being advised to reduce strenuous physical exertion, particularly outdoors and if they experience symptoms.

Dr Sotiris Vardoulakis of PHE’s Centre for Radiation, Chemical and Environmental Hazards said, “Anyone experiencing discomfort such as sore eyes, cough or sore throat should consider reducing activity, particularly outdoors.”

Defra has said that parts of eastern and north-west England, the Midlands, north Wales and south-west Scotland would be worst hit by the pollution.

Responding to the warnings, Tracey Harding, Head of Health and Safety at the union Unison, asked employers to take “a sensible approach toward any staff who may be asked to undertake strenuous work outside” and that the current health advice applies equally to workers who are older or those who have respiratory illnesses.

Suggestions from the union included finding alternative work indoors or working at a slower pace, with risk assessments being used to identify appropriate measures.