Is Subway Air Subpar?

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According to a recently published report, the level of pollution to which workers are exposed in Toronto’s subway system (known as the TTC), is within acceptable occupational limits.  This finding comes from an extensive air quality study done by the TTC. The need for the study was prompted by a Health Canada report that ‘suggested that the particulate matter in Toronto’s system was 2.5 times higher than systems in Montreal and Vancouver’.

Click here to read about the pollutant findings in the TTC’s underground subway system.

While the results of the findings confirm that additional protective measures are not required for non-maintenance workers employed by the TTC, the fact remains that the air quality in the underground workplace does contain particulate matter. This is the combination of organic and inorganic materials such as dust, pollen, gasses and air-borne toxins that exist in varying levels in air, all the time. It is the level(s) within this combination that can become problematic and potentially dangerous within the workplace environment.

Given the results of the air quality study by the TTC, it seems reasonable that no additional interventions, such as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in the form of masks, are required to be provided by the employer to all employees. As noted in the report, there are designated workers within the TTC who do work in areas with high levels of pollutants and are part of its ‘respiratory regulation program’. This implies that the employer is already providing PPE, equipment and support for those working within unacceptable air quality levels.

However, individual reactions to levels of pollutants and other air quality contaminants vary. According to an information posting by the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety (CCOHS), ’not all people are affected with the same symptoms or to the same extent’ in response to poor air quality issues.

Click here to read the general air quality fact sheet posted by CCOHS.

If individual reactions to air quality issues vary, how can the employer provide a safe workplace for all employees, without allowing for or providing protections on an individualized basis? This may be a question that remains unanswered and may be cause for more safety uncertainty.

While the findings of the report may provide comfort for some breathing in the underground air of the TTC, it is unlikely that it provides respite for all.

Discussion Questions:

  1. How does poor air quality impact workers and workplaces?
  2. What types of protections can the TTC provide to its employees that go beyond ‘accepted’ occupational exposure limits?
  3. Do you agree or disagree with the union’s position that all subway employees should be allowed to wear respiratory masks? Explain your rationale.