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Workers make a stand for clean air at COP26

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Time to breathe, or a moment’s pause, might be the secret wish of many weary conference attendees on the second week of the UN Climate Change Conference (COP26).


But nearby the event, the British Safety Council was calling attention to our most basic need to breathe clean air by highlighting the plight of outdoor workers under its Time to Breathe campaign.

Beneath a large banner, erected on Glasgow’s busy Broomielaw road, four outdoor workers gathered to call attention to the issue of air pollution.

British Safety Council’s new Chairman, Peter McGettrick in front of the Time to Breathe banner in Glasgow yesterday.

In attendance was Peter McGettrick, British Safety Council’s Chair, Stephen Cooke, British Safety Council’s head of policy and communications, and Joseph Carter, head of devolved nations at Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation.

Safety Management spoke to Peter to find out why the campaign had come to COP. “Tackling air pollution goes hand in hand with the drive to reduce emissions in order to get to Net Zero,” he explained. “Air quality has been ignored for far too long. It’s important for us to raise the awareness because it has an impact on outdoor workers every day.”

It is estimated that around 40,000 premature deaths and 20,200 hospital admissions could be attributed to air pollution every year in the UK.

Peter McGettrick with Joseph Carter, Head of Devolved Nations at Asthma UK and British Lung Foundation and the four workers.

Outdoor workers are particularly at risk. Looking to the M8 motorway, visible beyond the banner, Peter said: “Where we are stood now is 100 yards from one of the busiest roads in the UK. Glasgow is unique in that it has a motorway running through the heart of the city, which has a direct impact to the quality of air people breathe in the city and to the health of outdoor workers.”

The British Safety Council is calling to raise the quality of emissions data that cities have access to, to help inform decision making, he said. “Outside of London there’s very little that exists. We want all major cities to have the same quality of air pollution data as London.”

Joseph Carter spoke of his support of the campaign: “We recognise how important the work of outdoor workers are, they are stuck on construction sites and they can’t avoid it – there’s also heavy machinery and dust particles in the air because of [building materials] so we do recognise they are vulnerable. Others such as bus drivers are having to breathe in the emissions and are being exposed. So, we think it’s so important to protect our workers and raise awareness.”

He stressed that, from a respiratory point of view, air pollution “damages the lungs in the same way that smoking would” and over time reduces lung capacity, leading to possible asthma and lung cancer.

But he added that air pollution impacts more than just the lungs. “The air pollution is so fine and microscopic that it passes through the lungs and into the blood stream, it affects our cardiovascular system, our brains, our mental health, it gives us Alzheimer’s. So, it is a terribly dangerous, scary thing.”

After photographs with the local media, the four workers proceeded to the city centre taking their message to the public.

Although many notable figures such as Barack Obama have said COP comes short of what it could be – with some countries absent – there was still an atmosphere of energy and positivity in the city. This and other factors should make us hopeful.

“Over the last five years we’ve seen a huge increase in electric vehicles which [not so many years ago] would have been impossible," said Joseph. "We do need to go far further, the domestic vehicle is still popular, and it worries me we see more people investing in wood burning stoves for cosmetic reasons – that is worsening the pollution around us as well.

"But I am optimistic, and it is great to see so many organisations joining the cause such as your own.”

Time to Breathe: britsafe.org/campaigns-policy

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