Putting radon on the radar

From February 2018, the UK will bring in changes to radon control measures that revise the maximum level of radon exposure allowed in the workplace. What is the potential impact of the reforms and why must companies act now to comply with the revised legislation?

The replacement of the Ionising Radiation Regulations 1999 – from 1 January 2018 called Ionising Radiations Regulations 2017 (IRR17) – will no doubt put radon (radioactive gas that can seep out of the ground and build up in houses and indoor workplaces) on the radar for many businesses, as the UK looks to revise the maximum levels of radon permissible in the workplace. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is also planning to overhaul how organisations notify the watchdog of unsafe levels of exposure.

In line with World Health Organisation recommendations, for commercial buildings that are workplaces, it will mean having to adhere to a revised radon exposure limit of 300Bq/M3 annual average that will replace the current 400Bq/M3 over 24- hour maximum exposure levels.

The measures are aimed at tackling radon exposure, the second leading cause of lung cancer, as well as harmonising regulations across Europe.

Planned changes to the Ionising Radiation Regulations 1999 (IRR1999) are due to be implemented under the EU Basic Safety Standards Directive and will remain in force post-Brexit.

What is radon exposure?

Radon is a radioactive, colourless, odourless gas that is naturally present at low levels outdoors but can build up to high concentrations inside some buildings.

Radon decays to produce a series of by-products, such as Polonium, which emits radioactive particles that are dangerous to humans when inhaled. They damage the lung cells and have long-been recognised as the cause of up to 2,000 fatal cancers per year and the third leading cause of premature deaths in the UK, according to HSE.

Levels of radon gas vary across the UK depending on location and building type. The risk of radon exposure in a building increases dramatically if an employee’s workplace is in a geographic area of high radon activity such as Wales and Cornwall, where the nature of the underlying bedrock means some buildings have recorded the highest readings to date.

Workplaces including basements and lower ground floors are at a greater risk due to poorer ventilation, with radon being more likely to enter the building from multiple surfaces in contact with the ground.

Changing regulations

Under existing legislation, such as the Health and Safety at Work Act 1974 and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999, all organisations are required to carry out a radon risk assessment. UK workplaces located on below ground floors or in an area of high radon activity, and that are occupied at an average of greater than an hour per week or 52 hours per year, must carry out testing as part of the radon risk assessment.

Workplaces in areas where it is estimated that more than 1% of properties will be affected by high levels of radon – as defined by Public Health England’s UK radon heat map – must also carry out an assessment.

Where radon workplace levels exceed the current recommended workplace limit of 400Bq/M3, employers are required to notify HSE and implement an active remediation programme.

UK workplaces located in an area of high radon activity must carry out testing as part of the radon risk assessment.

However, once the new regulations come into force, organisations will need to pursue testing and remediation in the first instance and will only be required to notify HSE once remediation shows that levels cannot be reduced below the revised 400Bq/M3 over a 24 hour-period or 300Bq/M3 annual average.

Radon measured and reduced

To measure radon in the workplace, an independent testing body will install specialist radon detectors or digital monitors over a three-month test period, in order to establish average radon levels.

If unacceptable levels of exposure is detected, a remediation programme is put in place including a radon ‘sump’ that can be installed beneath the building, which collects radon particles and redistributes outdoors via a connecting pipe.

Figures show that radon exposure accounts for around 50 per cent of the average person in the UK’s annual personal radiation dose – a significant proportion of which occurs in the workplace. Organisations looking to achieve regulatory compliance and look after their workers, clearly need to act now.

New Ionising Radiation Regulations on HSE's website here

Ian Mitchell is Principal Consultant at Bureau Veritas