Reason why London Underground drivers and station staff take more sick days than office workers

By Staff

A report into the health effects of dust on the London Underground has said that drivers and station staff take more sick days than employees working in offices. Imperial College London research, commissioned by TfL, found that fleet staff, customer service workers and drivers all had higher rates of sickness absence due to any cause compared with ‘non-exposed’ office workers.

The study also looked more closely at sickness absence (SA) among drivers, using the District line – which had the lowest recorded particulate matter (PM) exposure – as a baseline. Boffins found that drivers on five out of eight lines showed elevated rates of all-cause sickness absence with the Piccadilly line having the highest concentration of PM.

But, it was noted that there was ‘no clear ‘exposure-response relationship’, where researchers would expect to see increasing exposure [with PM] associated with an increased sickness absence’. So, researchers concluded that they ‘cannot say for certain’ that exposure to dust is directly contributing to sickness absence among Tube staff.

READ MORE: ‘Gentle soul’ London Underground driver dies suddenly at work after kissing daughters goodnight

The research stated: “Fleet staff, CS [customer service] staff, and drivers had higher rates of all-cause SAs compared to non-exposed office workers. For respiratory infections, higher rates of reported SA in the higher PM exposed fleet staff (IRR [incidence rate ratios] 1.10, 95% CI 1.02, 1.19), CS staff (IRR 1.10, 95 % CI 1.06, 1.14), and drivers (IRR 1.12, 95% CI 1.07, 1.18) compared to office workers were seen.

“Fleet staff had a lower rate of non-infectious respiratory SAs compared to office workers (IRR 0.49, 95% CI 0.30, 0.81). SA due to non-infectious respiratory disease was not associated with any other job groups, and cardiovascular disease were not associated with any job group.”

However, it may be the case, an author of the paper suggests, that the effect of PM on the human body may be ‘too subtle’ to detect using the method used, and negative effects on workers may take time to appear.

Imperial PhD candidate and first author of the study Justie Mak said: “While this study is one of the largest and most comprehensive of its kind, linking exposure to health effects in the human body is complicated – the effects may be too subtle to detect in this way, or take a long time to develop.

“Chronic health impacts linked to dust exposure are likely to develop gradually, probably after prolonged inflammation. We are currently looking at the longer-term health effects among London Underground workers and will be reporting that later in the year.”

Staff ‘could be at higher risk of heart disease, strokes and cancer’

Finn Brennan, the ASLEF union’s district organiser covering the London Underground, suggested that members are at risk of a ‘higher risk of heart disease, strokes and cancer’. He said: “The report published today by Imperial College into fine dust particles, known as PM2.5, on the London Underground makes worrying reading for tube drivers and their families.

“While the report did not demonstrate a direct link between current levels of sickness on the Underground and exposure to PM2.5 particles, long term exposure is potentially dangerous and could lead to higher risks of heart disease, strokes and cancers. Levels of exposure for drivers, especially on deep tube lines with old stock are far, far too high.

“While LU management will say they are within UK standards, they are vastly greater than those set by the World Health Organisation. Many drivers spend decades working in conditions that could put their health at risk.”

‘Dust levels well below occupational health limits’

Lilli Matson, TfL’s Chief Safety, Health and Environment Officer said: “We welcome the results of this far-reaching study, which was commissioned by TfL with Imperial College London and is the largest study of this kind. The report did not establish a causal relationship between exposure to dust on the Tube and sickness absence from work. In addition, our own independent monitoring confirms that dust levels continue to remain well below occupational health limits set by the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) and that most of our network is below the recommended limits advised by the Institute of Occupational Medicine, which are set significantly lower.

“Dust is an issue for metro systems across the world, however in London our action has meant that we have continued to see a significant downward trend in dust levels. The data for this study covers the period between 2014 and 2019.

“TfL’s independent monitoring has shown that in-station dust levels have reduced by 19 per cent on the Tube since 2020 and that dust levels have reduced by 27 per cent in the driver’s cab since 2019.

“This research, alongside our own independent monitoring, will help our approach to understanding and tackling the issue of dust and air quality on the Tube network, making a difference both for our colleagues and our customers.”

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