Following Mental Health Awareness day, it seems timely to address not only the physical impacts of air pollution, but the hidden impact of variable air quality on mental health and wellness, which is often overlooked.  


All Health & Safety professionals work hard to protect their workforce against physical dangers - providing them with the best equipment and insight to keep them out of harm’s way. But with respiratory protection the challenge is greater as air pollution hazards are not always obvious to the naked eye, and the long-term effects can be hidden too.


Air quality tests have become part of health & safety risk assessments. Air samples are taken to confirm the level of air pollution in order to determine the required respiratory protection that is needed for the workforce.  Typically, this is the lowest level of protection needed for achieving compliance. But what if the lowest level of protection is not enough?


The physical impact of air pollution

Pollutants get into the lungs and cause noticeable short-term physical health effects. These are known to include eye, nose and throat irritation, upper respiratory infections--including bronchitis and pneumonia--headaches, nausea, allergic reactions and exacerbation of medical conditions, such as emphysema and asthma. Long-term physical health effects of air pollution may include chronic respiratory disease, lung cancer and heart disease. There is no debate that air pollution is a major health risk. It shortens lives and damages the quality of life for many people.


The hidden impact to mental health and wellbeing

Yet, the physical impact of air pollution is only part of the story. According to research published in the journal, Environmental Health Perspectives, mental health and wellness are also affected by the long-term effects of air pollution. But the impact is not so easily traceable as the physical effects and cannot always be pinpointed to a person’s work history.


For the last decade, there has been an abundance of medical research looking at the long-term negative impact of air quality. Medical data looking at the very young to the elderly has highlighted how an increase in air pollution can impede cognitive abilities.  Recent studies have linked poor air quality to dementia, although that link remains debatable. Studies also show auditory and vestibular impairment – which has an impact on balance and coordination.


However, although business, the medical community and the political infrastructure are addressing the issue on a global level, it is a complex subject with both health and economic costs. And there is still need for further research to fully understand the long-term impact of air pollution.


Current Health & Safety approach for Respiratory Protection

Health and Safety rhetoric is based around accident limitation, the physical organs, obvious indicators of failure – repository difficulty, loss of hearing, injury caused by slip, trip or fall.  All of these injuries are immediate, contain a residue traceability or in a real sense can be pinpointed within a person’s work history.


If an individual uses a carcinogenic causing agent, they will have risk assessments carried out, possibly they will be tested by their EHS department, there will be specific rules to follow, even filtration, possible Air Fed Breathing Apparatus, and a proverbial line is drawn to denote what kind of respiratory, if any, should be used.


We raise the question “Is this approach good enough?”


Prevention is better than Cure

The potential dangers of air pollution, in the long term, are still unknown. It is our responsibility as upholders of Health and Safety to protect our workforces against these potential threats.  What can we do to help reduce the risks of respiratory illnesses and mental health and wellbeing issues?


We can simply continue to follow current guidance and meet compliance requirements. Or you can take a preventative approach, to protect employees from possible long-term health issues.  Our recommendations to protect your workforce with a four-step approach:

  1.   Use simple common sense. If you can smell or taste a substance in the air, ask yourself if you should be breathing it into your lungs?
  2.   Identify if there is an issue with air quality.
  3.   Take a test. If you are at all unsure about the air quality, take a sample test.
  4.   Reassess your equipment and upgrade protection.


Disposable and half masks may reduce the risk of particle ingestion, but they can increase labour on the lungs due to negative air pressure. If you use either of these respiratory solutions, you may wish to consider an alternative product. Headtops provide a cost-effective and safe alternative – providing particle protection, without adding extra strain on lungs.

Take a look at some great options for respiratory protection. Call us on 0800 328 5028 to speak to an expert who can provide expertise with selecting the best respiratory protection masks for your workforce.