Diesel - declared carcinogen

New Workplace Exposure Limit

On 7 September, 2023, SafeWork Australia members agreed to add a workplace exposure limit (WEL) for diesel particulate matter (DPM) at 0.01 mg/m3 (elemental carbon) to the list of Workplace Exposure Limits for airborne contaminants (WEL list).

VTHC, along with affiliated unions, contributed submissions through the ACTU to support this improvement.

Work health and safety (WHS) ministers who agreed to the new Workplace Exposure Limits (WEL) list set a transition period until November 30, 2026. The WEL list replaces the previous Workplace Exposure Standards (WES). 

The new WELs represents the first update in over 20 years, with many substances now having lower, more protective exposure values. The new diesel WEL represents a significant step in limiting exposure to a known carcinogen and will be subject to a three-year phase-in period.

WHS ministers decided to rename WES as WEL to emphasise that the limits should not be surpassed, and to align with international terminology. The changes will take effect from December 1, 2026, once implemented into WHS laws across Australia.

Until December 2026, the existing Workplace Exposure Standards will continue to apply. However, the publication of the new WELs provides opportunity for Unions and HSRs to argue for the application of these limits earlier based on the 'state of knowledge.' It may also be possible to have discussions as to how employers intend to meet the new standard.

You can find the revised WELs on the Safe Work Australia website here.

IARC concludes diesel exhaust fumes are carcinogenic

A panel of scientific experts convened by the World Health Organization's (WHO) International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) concluded in June 2012 that diesel engine exhaust is a Group 1 carcinogen – that is, carcinogenic to humans.   Previously, the IARC classification for diesel exhaust was "probably carcinogenic to humans," but with the publication of additional epidemiological and toxicological studies over the last 20 years, the expert panel determined there was sufficient evidence to change the compound's cancer designation.   The IARC panel wrote:

"The scientific evidence was reviewed thoroughly by the Working Group and overall it was concluded that there was sufficient evidence in humans for the carcinogenicity of diesel exhaust. The Working Group found that diesel exhaust is a cause of lung cancer (sufficient evidence) and also noted a positive association (limited evidence) with an increased risk of bladder cancer."    IARC Press Release , [pdf] June 2012

However, in a tactic not unlike those of tobacco or asbestos companies, just prior to IARC's announcement, the U.S. based Diesel Technology Forum (DTF) issued a statement about clean-diesel technology.  The trade group suggests in its statement that the U.S. EPA and the California Air Resources Board say that diesel exhaust has few biological effects. IARC officials were unable to comment on the statement given its vague nature, but responded by saying that the expert panel had reviewed hundreds of studies, and suggested that if such a study claiming "few biologic effects" was in the literature, they would have reviewed it.   Source: The Pump Handle Science Blog

Canadian research (May 2018) found that most lung cancers caused by occupational diesel engine exhaust (DEE) are the result of exposures to low concentrations of the substance. The researchers reiterated urgent calls for employers to get rid of old diesel-powered machinery, warning that focusing interventions solely on reducing moderate or high DEE exposure will eliminate fewer than half of attributable lung cancer cases.
(Joanne Kim, et al, Burden of lung cancer attributable to occupational diesel engine exhaust exposure in Canada. [Abstract] Occupational and Environmental Medicine, online first April 2018, doi: oemed-2017-104950.)

More recent (November 2020) research has found that professional drivers face a routine and serious health risk from diesel exhaust fume exposures at work. In what they described as “the largest real-world in-vehicle personal exposure study to date”, researchers from the MRC Centre for Environment and Health, Environmental Research Group and Imperial College London, found that professional drivers are regularly exposed to hazardous levels of diesel emissions as part of their work. Other studies have linked diesel fume exposure at work to lung and blood cancer and heart, lung and other diseases. This study funded by safety professionals’ organisation IOSH found that professional drivers are disproportionately affected by exposure to diesel exhaust fumes, including taxi drivers - the worst hit group - couriers, bus drivers and drivers working for the emergency services.

In total, 11,500 hours of professional drivers’ exposure data were analysed in the baseline monitoring campaign. The results showed that, on average, professional drivers were exposed to 4.1 micrograms of black carbon per cubic metre of air (µg/m3) while driving, which was around four times higher than their exposure at home (1.1 µg/m3). The levels recorded at home would be similar to levels experienced by office workers at their desks, the researchers said. The study found massive exposure spikes often occurred in congested traffic within Central London, in areas where vehicles congregate, such as in car parks or depots, as well as in tunnels and ‘street canyons’ (between high buildings).

Hazard information

The exhaust gases which are discharged from the engine contain several constituents that are harmful to human health and to the environment.

The exhaust from diesel engines is made up of two main parts: gases and soot. Each of these, in turn, is made up of many different substances.

  • The gas portion of diesel exhaust is mostly carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide, nitric oxide, nitrogen dioxide, sulphur oxides, and hydrocarbons, including polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs).
  • The soot (particulate) portion of diesel exhaust is made up of particles such as carbon, organic materials (including PAHs), and traces of metallic compounds. Both the gases and the soot of diesel exhaust contain PAHs.

Many workers in workplaces where diesel-powered equipment is used, such as railroad workers, truck drivers, farmers, miners, mechanics, and toll booth workers, are exposed to hazardous diesel exhaust emissions on the job. The exhaust from diesel fuel can cause health effects - as noted above: cancer, but also conditions ranging from cough and eye irritation to wheezing and difficulty breathing. 

Health Effects

Acute Effects
The acute (immediate) health effects associated with exposure to diesel exhaust exposure include irritation of the nose and eyes, lung function changes, respiratory changes, headache, fatigue and nausea.

Chronic Health Effects
Chronic (long term) exposures are associated with cough, sputum production and lung function decrements. In addition to symptoms, exposure studies in healthy humans have documented a number of profound inflammatory changes in the airways, notably, before changes in pulmonary function can be detected. It is likely that such effects may be even more detrimental in asthmatics and other subjects with compromised pulmonary function.

In addition, there are observations supporting the hypothesis that diesel exhaust is one important factor contributing to the allergy pandemic. For example, in many experimental systems, diesel exhaust particles can be shown to act as adjuvants to allergen and hence increase the sensitisation response. 


Based on studies of worker exposure, there has been growing concern that diesel exhaust could potentially cause cancer - as noted, IARC classified diesel engine exhaust as carcinogenic to humans (Group 1), determining that exposure to diesel exhaust emissions increases the risk for lung cancer and possibly bladder cancer. In March 2012, the findings of a large study of diesel emissions exposures in underground miners showed an increased risk of death from lung cancer in exposed workers. This study was conducted by the US National Cancer Institute (NCI) and National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH). 

(much of the above information on the hazard and the health effects comes from a Chemwatch Hazard Alert)

At risk for exposure

People everywhere are exposed to some diesel exhaust, as there are increasing numbers of vehicles fueled by diesel. However, people working where diesel engines are running indoors or in enclosed spaces, such as bridges and tunnels, engine maintenance garages, carparks, underground mines, and fire stations have some of the highest exposures to the exhaust, and are at increased risk for illness.

Other workers who are at high risk for diesel exhaust exposure include:

  • operators of diesel powered engines (such as in trains, trucks, buses, tractors, and forklifts)
  • mechanics
  • roadside inspection workers
  • loading/shipping dock workers
  • truck drivers
  • farm workers
  • railroad workers
  • ship crew members
  • carpark attendants

Live Show

The OHS team at Victoria Trades Hall Council recently produced a live show with an industry expert on diesel fumes, the damage it can cause a person and what precautionary measures can be taken against it. Enjoy!

Legal Standards

There is no workplace exposure standard for diesel exhaust - in effect, Australia does not recognise diesel as a carcinogen! This should not stop Australian unions ensuring that action is taken to prevent exposure to diesel fumes. Some of the individual components of diesel exhaust like carbon dioxide, carbon monoxide and inhalable or respirable dust can and should be monitored to provide an indication of diesel exhaust levels.

The employer has a duty under the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act (2004) to provide and maintain for employees, as far as practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. This includes ensuring 'so far as reasonably practicable' ensuring safety and the absence of risk to health in connection with the use, handling, storage or transport of plant or substances, a safe system of work, information, training, supervision, and where appropriate personal protective equipment. The employer also has the duty to monitor conditions at the workplace and to monitor the health and safety of employees. 

Thus, to comply, employers should assess the risks to the health of workers exposed to diesel exhaust and take the necessary precautions to prevent or reduce the amount that workers breathe.  Any decisions must be made in consultation with HSRs and workers.  Further, employers should educate employees on the risks of exposure to diesel exhaust, implement controls to eliminate/minimise exposure, provide instruction and training on control measures, and any personal protective equipment that they must use.

If exposure cannot be eliminated by using safer alternative fuels (e.g. natural gas or electricity), the employer must use a combination of control measures to reduce risk:

  • Changing to reformulated diesel, or biodiesel fuel to reduce emissions, or switching to low-emission diesel engines that burn fuel more efficiently.
  • Installing vehicle accessories such as exhaust extenders that re-direct the exhaust away from the operator and attach filters to tailpipes and oxidation catalytic converters to reduce exhaust.
  • Attaching exhaust extractor hoses on the tailpipes of vehicles that idle for long periods (such as in vehicle maintenance shops).
  • Running diesel engines outdoors rather than indoors when possible.
  • Maintaining engines regularly, and inspect the bodies of vehicles and seal cracks or holes to prevent exhaust from getting into the cabin.
  • Turning engines off whenever possible to reduce engine idling.
  • Putting fixed diesel engines (eg generators) in separate, ventilated areas under negative air pressure.
  • Ventilating indoor work areas well with vents in the walls and ceiling, and with air extraction fans to pull diesel exhaust-contaminated air away from workers, and exhaust it outdoors.
  • Monitoring worker exposure to diesel exhaust emissions.
  • Supplying a respirator if ventilation and other control methods are not effective and suitable.
  • Using job rotation to reduce worker exposure to diesel exhaust.

The European Commission has proposed a new workplace limit for diesel exhaust. The proposed limit value for diesel exhaust is 0.05 mg/m³.

More Information

Last updated, February 2022