Air Quality – a trade union issue

Module 3: Trades Union Responses


As we have seen in Modules 1 and 2, there has been a huge amount written about the air quality crisis in the UK and globally. Scientific studies have provided evidence of the terrible health effects of air pollution, MPs have declared it a public health emergency and so has the World Health Organisation. The United Nations are now beginning to see it as a human rights issue. Yet despite this, very little has been said about why it must be a priority issue in the workplace.

In the UK, the reality is that most air pollution is created by work, and people travelling to work. Workers are exposed to and create pollution to fulfil contractual obligations to employers. So why is more not being done to get employers to address the causes of this public health crisis and environmental disaster?

A trade union issue

A trade union issue

The best way to get employers to carry out their responsibilities is for unions to get involved. Historically unions have been at the forefront of pushing the workplace health and safety agenda. The legal protection and standards currently in place are largely due to over one hundred and fifty years of union pressure.

One of the most famous strikes in union history arose out of unsafe working conditions to do with air quality. The issues behind the Bryant and May strike in 1888 included exposure to white phosphorous vapour.

However, unions have not always been so active on ‘environmental issues’. They have tended to focus on what’s happening within the workplace. But the problem of air pollution is a perfect example of the need to break down this division between what goes on inside and outside of the workplace.

Outdoor air pollution gets inside and if mixed with sources of indoor pollution, the air can become even more toxic. In addition, for millions of workers working outside is their job or makes up a large part of it. And all workers will be exposed to outdoor air pollution as part of their journeys to and from work. If any of these factors impact on workers’ health then it follows that there should be a trade union response.

But poor air quality is not just an occupational health issue – there are other reasons why this should be high up on the union agenda:

  • Air Pollution and Health Inequality – There is mounting evidence that people from lower socio-economic groups are especially vulnerable to poor air quality.
  • Air Pollution and Climate Change -. Action on air quality can support reductions in greenhouse gas emissions, and vice versa.
  • Air pollution and Industrial Strategy – Dealing with this hazard can only be done effectively as part of a bigger strategic approach to carbon pollution and the rapid transition to a low carbon economy.  

Examples of trade union action

Case Study 1 – T&GWU

In the 1990s the Transport and General Workers Union (now UNITE) launched some ground-breaking activity. Alan Dalton, the T&GWU Heath, Safety, and Environment National Officer did more than anyone to make air pollution a trade union issue. The quote from Bill Morris, the General Secretary of the T&GWU, on the front cover of Trade Unionists and Eco-auditing Report, highlights this approach:

We do not have to choose between jobs and a healthy environment – we can and we must have both…But it is not just about where we work –  it is about where we live and where our kids go to school. It is about the quality of our air and water. It is about protecting our future.”

The union produced guidance for their health and safety reps on how to carry out an eco-audit in the workplace. It included investigating priorities such as ‘reduction and elimination of emissions and other nuisances – not just toxic and harmful emissions, but also smells, noise and impact on the landscape.’


Case Study 2 – UCU

The UCU South Thames College branch spearheaded an innovative campaign that involved staff, students, and residents. In 2014 air monitoring using diffusion tubes was conducted in Tooting High St. The results formed the basis of a public awareness campaign and meetings with the Director of Public Health and Councillors. This was instrumental in getting the installation of an air monitoring unit on the High St in 2016. Results from this unit have led to the council identifying Tooting as a priority action area.

The map above shows that NO2 levels outside the college were over twice the EU legal limit in 2014.

In 2017, the UCU environment rep put the issue of air monitoring on the agenda of the Environment Working Group and management agreed to support a new programme of monitoring across all 3 sites. The results will be fed into future training of staff and engagement with other public bodies.


  1. Campaigning in your Union

If you are a trade union member check whether there is any existing union policy on air quality. At the time of writing this module, there were very few so the answer is likely to be No. Union policy is decided at annual conferences so one option is to pass a motion in your branch to go to your conference.

Here’s an example of a union motion on air quality:

Air pollution in the UK is a public health emergency. Over 40,000 people die each year from the air that they breathe – more than obesity and alcohol combined. A significant cause is carbon pollution arising from work and travel to work. It is an occupational health issue that employers take little responsibility for.

In the FHE sector many workplaces are in high pollution areas. Recent research shows that 43% of colleges in London are in locations that breach legal standards. We call on UCU to:

  • Campaign for a legal framework that addresses this health emergency
  • Promotes a programme of awareness raising for staff and students in the sector
  • Provide training and support for UCU Environment and Health and Safety Reps to tackle this issue in their workplace and communities
  • Work with the Greener Jobs Alliance, the Hazards Campaign and other organisations promoting air quality action to deliver these objectives


  1. Campaigning in your Workplace

Applying health and safety law to workplace pollution

Workers can use duties placed upon the employer to improve health and safety standards. Do these legal standards have any relevance to air pollution hazards? The answer is not clear-cut. Laws that could have a relevance are:

Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 – HASAWA contains general duties on employers to ensure ‘so far as is reasonably practicable, the health, safety and welfare at work of all his employees’’. (Section 2).

Section 3 also covers General duties of employers and self-employed to persons other than their employees. This could apply to members of the public who are impacted by poor air quality created by an employer

Management Health and Safety at Work Regs 1999Employers have a duty to assess all risks for all workers, whether they work on the business premises, at home or at the premises of clients.

Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regs 2002 – Covers exposure to substances that include dusts and vapours. As with the MHSW Regs a risk assessment is required.

Employers are under a legal duty to carry out a risk assessment of hazards to their workforce and members of the public exposed to their operations. Below we have adapted a 5 Stage standard risk assessment procedure to air quality hazards.

Risk Assessment Checklist for a Workplace

Step 1 – Identify the risks and people impacted

  • There are plenty of reports that highlight the general extent of the hazard. Ref back to Modules 1 and 2 for information. These may be enough in themselves to move to the next stage of the process
  • There is research that identify hazards in sectors and locations. For example, 43% of Colleges in London are in high-risk areas according to recent reports.
  • Survey staff to find out whether they think their health is affected by air pollution.
  • Identify any staff who indicate they may have health problems that have been brought on or aggravated by air pollution

Step 2 – Identify key information

  • Legal standards – Environment Regulations specify exposure levels. See Module 2. Showing that workers and others could be exposed to pollution above legal standards is a powerful way to get support and get improvements.
  • Use workplace H+S standards. See above for legislation that places a duty on employers to protect the occupational health of workers
  • Local Authority obligations – Check if your LA has an Air Quality Action Plan. This may contain useful information indicating whether there are high-risk areas.
  • Check where air monitoring stations are and get the results. The LA website should provide a link to any permanent sites near your workplace
  • Does your employer have a policy?
  • Has it been raised at any meetings?
  • Have any local groups carried out any monitoring?
  • Has there been a survey of staff views?

Step 3 – Existing control measures and any additional measures needed

  • Review current employer policy to find out if it covers any of the following:

                         – Transport of people and goods

                         – Travel policy

                          – Procurement policy

                         – Pollution alerts

                          – Staff at special risk – job or health issues

                          – Awareness raising

                         – Carbon management

  • Identify any gaps in the above and decide what additional measures are needed

Step 4 – Implementation

  • Based on Steps 1-3 decide if there is a need for a general risk assessment?
  • Based on Steps 1-3 is there a need for person/job specific assessments?
  • Raise the issue with management. Get a commitment that the union will be consulted on implementation measures
  • If you work in the education sector, identify if there is an opportunity for curriculum links with students

Step 5 – Review and Monitoring

  • Agree a procedure for regular monitoring of exposure levels
  • Agree a procedure for liaising with the local authority and other employers to exchange information and identify good practice
  • Ensure the policy is subject to regular review through the HSE committee

The Trade Union Clean Air Network (TUCAN) has published a union rep guide that also includes a checklist for workplace action.

Campaigning in your Community




Campaigning in your Community

Unions have a history of getting involved in their local communities. As we have seen in this module air quality is both a workplace issue and a public health one. Trades Union Councils are well placed to provide a collective voice on matters that impact on more than one sector of employment.

Examples of Community Campaigns

Case Study 1 – DIRT Magazine

Alan Dalton (1946-2003) helped launched a publication called DIRT which exposed the toxic cocktail of pollutants faced by residents. The front cover of the 2nd edition exposes the inequalities of pollution and public health.  

It was a grassroots tabloid campaigning on behalf of people affected by toxic waste – either in landfill or from incinerators. Alan was working on issue 2 until three weeks before his death. These GJA modules are dedicated to Alan’s memory as someone who led the way in making air quality a trade union and community issue.


Case Study 2 – Battersea and Wandsworth TUC

BWTUC is an example of the potential role that can be played by trades union councils. They can provide a city / borough-wide response to local authority air quality action plans. In 2017 BWTUC issued a press statement which challenged the view of Wandsworth Council that pollution levels were improving.


Getting help with your community campaign

There are plenty of opportunities to develop a local campaign. Look out for local organisations that can provide support. For example:

Friends of the Earth has a set of resources that can be used as part of their ‘Clean Air campaign’

London Sustainability Exchange (LSX) has been at the forefront of linking up with schools and communities in London and has produced a range of materials that can be accessed here

  1. Campaigning in your Local Authorities

There is no shortage of issues that unions can take up with their local authorities. Firstly check the LA has published an Air Quality Action Plan. What does it say about the following:

  • Funding and the cost of improvement measures.
  • Engagement with employers and businesses
  • Clean air zones
  • Current air monitoring provision
  • The council’s procurement policy in relation to vehicles and other equipment
  • Regulation of construction and other activities with a high level of emissions
  • Promoting walking and cycling initiatives
  • Town centre design and goods delivery operations
  • Clean public transport
  • Links to education / public awareness
  • Implementation of diesel scrappage schemes
  • Links to housing/fuel poverty issues
  • Links to inequalities
  • Air Quality Action Zones
  • Public health
  • Consultation and communication
  • Supporting campaigns for improving and implementing national policy

Regional and Local Initiatives

Action on air quality is also devolved to a local level under the law. This means that local authorities can introduce their own enforceable standards. Some have used these powers more than others.

Greater London Authority

The Mayor of London has introduced a range of measures that can be found here.

These include:

Toxicity charge – started in Oct. 2017 for older polluting vehicles driving into central London

Ultra Low Emission Zone – superseded the T Charge in April 2019 and covers a wider area

Buses – Phase out of pure diesel buses by 2018

Low Emission Neighbourhoods – Providing funding for additional measures in pollution hotspots

The GLA has produced an air quality strategy which the Greener Jobs Alliance responded to. It is part of the London Environment Strategy published in 2018. Details here.


School Air Quality Audits

The Mayor of London has also targeted specific workplaces like schools. Those in high-risk areas will receive a detailed audit, carried out by an experienced transport and environment consultancy, which will review ways to dramatically lower emissions and exposure to pollution in and around the school. The audits will highlight key interventions to reduce exposure and will run alongside a pollution awareness-raising education programme at each school.

Audit recommendations could include:

  • moving school entrances and play areas to reduce exposure to busy roads;
  • ‘no engine idling’ schemes to reduce harmful emissions during the school run;
  • looking at the school estate to minimise emissions from boilers, kitchens and other sources;
  • changes to local roads, including improved road layouts, restricting the most polluting vehicles around schools and pedestrianisation around school entrances; and
  • ‘green infrastructure’ such as ‘barrier bushes’ along busy roads and in playgrounds to ‘block’ out toxic fumes
  • encouraging walking and cycling through competitions, ‘walking buses’ with large groups of pupils walking together on pavements, plus improving cycle and walking routes.



In 2017 Birmingham City Council carried out a public survey which showed that Birmingham people are very concerned with the issue of air quality and the negative effects it could have on the city with:

  • 87% of respondents thinking air quality is a ‘serious issue’ to be tackled now;
  • 88% telling us they think air quality has a very serious impact on health; and,
  • 67% saying that air quality was an important consideration when making choices about how they travel. in your Local Authorities

Find out what they’ve been doing about air quality in your area:

Campaigning Nationally

Campaigning Nationally

Module 2 explored the need to campaign nationally for a new Clean Air Act. You can find out more about this campaign from organisations like:

Trade Union Clean Air Network (TUCAN) was set up in 2019 by the Greener Jobs Alliance and the Hazards Campaign. It has produced a Clean Air Charter that has been adopted by most of the larger national trades unions in the UK.

SERA which was founded in 1973 as the Socialist Environment and Resources Association. It is the only environmental group affiliated to the Labour Party, and campaigns for the party to adopt ambitious environmental policies. It has launched a campaign for a new Clean Air Act.

The British Lung Foundation is a charity carrying out research on lung conditions. It has launched a campaign for cleaner air. Details can be found at:

What Are Your Next Steps?

There is no quiz at the end of this module but there are plenty of options for what you can do next. Complete the Next Steps form at the end of this module after looking at some of the options below. You have the option of completing an action plan on how you intend to apply the information. Choose which action you plan to carry out and fill in the pdf provided.

1. Campaigning in your Union

Read the sample union motion on air quality above under Influencing National Union Policy

Make a note of how would it need to be adapted for your union and industry?

Prepare a draft for a future meeting where Annual Conference Motions is an agenda item.

2. Campaigning in your Workplace

Is your workplace in a pollution hotspot? If the answer is Yes or maybe, then apply the Risk Assessment Checklist to understand the extent of the hazard. Before you start get the support of your union branch. Liaise with the union safety rep, if there is one. Before you start outline who you plan to involve and further information needed to complete the checklist.

3. Campaigning in your Community

Identify the organisations active on air quality in your community. Make a note of any campaigns or actions that have been organised. Check the Friends of the Earth (FoE) and London Sustainability Exchange (Lsx) websites for potential follow-up activities.

4. Campaigning in your Local Authority

Find out what they’ve been doing about air quality in your area. Go on to their website and search for Air Quality. Check whether the policies cover the 17 bullet points referenced above under Campaigning in your Local Authorities

5. Campaigning Nationally

Check the websites of organisations like Client Earth, Friends of the Earth, British Lung Foundation, SERA, and Greener Jobs Alliance to find out the latest information on the Campaign for a Clean Air Act. Visit the TUCAN section of the GJA website to get updates and resources to support your campaigns. 

Arrange a speaker from one of the organisations supporting the campaign to a meeting in your workplace or local community to discuss the latest developments and why change is needed.

Download the interactive Action Plan PDF here

In order to keep the changes you make to the PDF make sure you Save As when you download the file.


Try one of our other free online courses
Climate Change Awareness
A Trade Union Guide to Just Transition