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The dangers of diesel exhaust

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Using and being around diesel-powered equipment is a regular part of the job for workers in a variety of industries, including construction, manufacturing, maritime, mining and agriculture. But such equipment can present a number of health hazards if not properly controlled.

Diesel exhaust contains diesel particulate matter, a component that, according to OSHA, “includes soot particles made up primarily of carbon, ash, metallic abrasion particles, sulfates and silicates.” In 2012, the International Agency for Research on Cancer – part of the World Health Organization – classified diesel exhaust as a “known human carcinogen.”

Short-term exposure to high concentrations of diesel exhaust and diesel particulate matter can result in dizziness; headaches; and eye, nose and throat irritation, the agency states. Prolonged exposure can increase a worker’s risk of cardiovascular, cardiopulmonary and respiratory disease, and lung cancer.

Controlling exposure

Because diesel exhaust is linked to a variety of health problems for workers, it’s important to control worker exposure. OSHA recommends a combination of engineering and administrative controls. Examples of engineering controls include performing routine preventive maintenance for machinery that uses diesel engines, using cleaner-burning engines, providing equipment featuring cabs with filtered air, and installing or replacing main or auxiliary ventilation systems.

Examples of administrative controls are prohibiting unnecessary idling or lugging of engines, restricting how much diesel-powered equipment can be used in a given area, and designating off-limit areas for diesel engine operation.

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