What about radon at work?

Radon is a colourless, odourless gas that is produced from the uranium that occurs naturally in rocks and soils. Radon gas disperses quickly outside, but when it seeps into buildings it can collect in greater amounts. The geology of the UK means that people in certain parts of the country, such as Devon, Cornwall, Northamptonshire, and parts of Derbyshire, Somerset, Grampian and the Highlands, are exposed to much higher levels of radon.

Because radon 'decays' to form radioactive alpha particles, which can be breathed in, it can cause lung cancer.

The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) says that radon is now recognised to be the second largest cause of lung cancer in the UK after smoking.

The radon reference site from the Health Protection Agency (HPA) says:

  • Radon increases your risk of lung cancer.
  • The higher the radon level and the longer the exposure, the greater the risk.
  • Radon causes over 1,100 cases of lung cancer each year in the UK (3.3% of all deaths from lung cancer).
  • Half of these deaths occur among the quarter of the population who are current smokers.

The UK has been surveyed by the HPA and the British Geological Survey. The areas with the highest levels of radon have been defined as radon Affected Areas. The UKradon website will show you whether your workplace is in one of these areas.

The HSE advises that underground workplaces such as basements, mines, caves and utility industry service ducts can have significant levels of radon, as can any above-ground workplace in radon Affected Areas.

The  Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations 1999 require employers to carry out a risk assessment and the HSE says that this should include radon in the following circumstances:

  • Above-ground workplaces in ground floor rooms where the building is in a radon Affected Area.
  • Below-ground workplaces that are occupied for more than an average of an hour a week or 52 hours a year, and those containing an open water source.

The law (Ionising Radiations Regulations 1999) requires employers to take action where radon is present above a certain level (400 Becquerel per cubic metre of air (400 Bq/m3)). So, if you work in areas of the country with high levels of radon or in poorly ventilated premises, your employer should monitor the levels of radon at work.

The tests are cheap and simple, and the HSE or your Local Authority Environmental Health Department can put you in touch with someone who can test your workplace for radon. If radon levels exceed 400 Bq/m3, your employer will need to act to reduce them by having a sump and fan installed by a local builder to suck the radon from the soil and vent it outside the building.

Note: This content is provided as general background information and should not be taken as legal advice or financial advice for your particular situation. Make sure to get individual advice on your case from your union, a source on our free help page or an independent financial advisor before taking any action.