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Diesel engine exhaust and cancer

Diesel engine exhaust (DEE) is created by burning diesel fuels. It contains a mixture of airborne chemicals that can be harmful to people. When breathed in, these chemicals increase your risk of developing long-term health problems. This includes lung cancer and possibly bladder cancer. In Australia, diesel engine exhaust is the second most common cancer causing agent (carcinogen) workers are exposed to, behind ultraviolet radiation exposure. It is estimated that 1.2 million Australian workers were exposed in 2011.

For access to our free workplace resources (posters, fact sheet and presentations) click here.

Airborne contaminants

DEE contains a mixture of gases and soot, which is also called particulate matter. Other substances, including carcinogens, may stick to the soot. Because soot particles are very small they can easily get deep into the lungs. This is how they cause a range of short-term and long-term health problems, including cancer. Regular exposure to high levels of soot, over a long period of time, increases the risk of getting lung and bladder cancer.

Cancer risk from DEE varies depending upon:

  • where the engine is being operated (outside or enclosed space)
  • ventilation in the workspace
  • number of engines
  • type and age of the engine
  • size of engines
  • fuel pump setting
  • engine temperature
  • fuel used (e.g. low-sulphur diesel)
  • use of emission control system/s
  • state of engine tuning and maintenance
  • pattern of use (load and acceleration)
  • length of time the worker is exposed.

Effective controls

All Australian workplaces must follow work health and safety laws; however these vary slightly between states and territories, but the duty of care for employers and responsibilities of workers across Australia is similar:

  • employers are required to ensure the health and safety of their workers at their workplace
  • workers must take care of their own health and safety
  • workers must not negatively affect the health and safety of other people
  • workers must follow any reasonable instruction and workplace health and safety policies.

Workers should always be involved in the risk management process to correctly identify hazards and use control measures that suit the workplace.

The Safe Work Australia Guidance for Managing the Risks of Diesel Exhaust has information on how you can control DEE hazards in your workplace. A combination of the recommended controls should be used (Table 1) to minimise DEE exposure. You should choose the control measures that best suit your workplace.

Eliminate or reduce exposure to hazards using the hierarchy of control (Figure 1) and put in place a risk management process. If suitable control measures are not in place, anyone working with or around diesel-powered engines could be at an increased risk of developing cancer.

Asbestos hierarchy of risk- controlFigure 2. The hierarchy of risk control

Recommended workplace exposure limits in the Australian Institute of Occupational Hygienists: Diesel Particulate Matter and Occupational Health Issues Position Paper help to reduce the irritant effect of DEE and secondarily aid in minimising the potential risk for lung cancer caused by work.

However, the limit in this paper is higher than the level of DEE which is associated with cancer.

Workplace air monitoring can be used to check if exposure to particulate matter in DEE is being effectively reduced by the controls you are using. An occupational hygienist can assist with air monitoring.

For any concerns related to control measures at your workplace, or for more information on the control of air quality contact:

How do I detect cancer early and reduce my cancer risk?

Speak to your doctor if you have had a cough for more than three weeks or have blood in your urine. To find out what you can do to create a workplace that supports healthy choices to help reduce cancer risk, contact Cancer Council on 13 11 20.

Table 1. Summary of control measures for diesel engine exhaust
Engine selection
Replace diesel powered engines with other energy sources (i.e. electric, gas) or choose low emission engines. Use purchasing guidelines for supply of engines that meet US Tier 4 or Euro 6 standards.
Fuel selection
Use ultra-low sulphur and other low-emission diesel fuels, fuel additives and low sulphur lubricants where possible. Avoid contaminating diesel fuel and lubricating oils.
Engine refurbishment

Install devices that reduce emissions (e.g. particulate filters, catalytic converters, water scrubbers).

Emission control devices Install devices that reduce emissions (e.g. particulate filters, catalytic converters, scrubbers, acoustic agglomeration, cyclones).
Enclosed equipment Design and maintain air-conditioned cabs where possible (positive pressure, HEPA filtered air supply, leak tested).
Ventilation Use both local exhaust and forced dilution ventilation. Natural ventilation should not be used as a control method. Use connecting extraction pipes for vehicle exhausts in workshops. Cold engine starts should occur in spaces with good ventilation.
Maintenance and repairs Have a maintenance schedule for all engines and emission control equipment.  Carry out emissions-based maintenance on engines (initial baseline testing and raw exhaust monitoring).
Testing of exhaust components Use raw exhaust tests to measure how well exhaust treatments are working. Test in normal working conditions (e.g. engines under load, in low gear with hot engine and hydraulics, engine revving at 70-80%). High and low idle tests are not enough.
Engine operation Operate engines to optimise combustion (e.g. drive to usual conditions, limit idling and over-revving). Turn off engines when not in use.
Worker education and training Educate workers on hazards and the policies and procedures used to manage them. This is a work health and safety requirement.[11]  Report any changes in engine emissions or visible changes in the workplace (i.e. visible white, blue or black smoke, walls or surfaces covered in soot or smoky looking haze when diesel engines are in use).
Share activities Rotate job tasks between your workers to reduce amount of time exposed to diesel engine exhaust.
PPE Wear air supplied or air purifying respiratory protection that filters particulates. They should be fitted to each worker.

Schedule work to minimise the number of workers near the plant whilst it is operating.

Other resources

Other useful websites


  • International-Agency-for-Research-on-Cancer, IARC Monographs on the Evaluation of Carcinogenic Risks to Humans. 2013, World Health Organisation: Lyon, France.
  • Carey, R.N., et al., Estimated prevalence of exposure to occupational carcinogens in Australia (2011-2012). Occupational and Environmental Medicine, 2014. 71(1): p. 55-62.
  • Peters, S., et al., The Australian Work Exposures Study: Prevalence of Occupational Exposure to Diesel Engine Exhaust. Annals of Occupational Hygiene, 2015. 59(5): p. 600-608.
  • Australian-Institute-of-Occupational-Hygienists, Diesel Particulate Matter and Occupational Health Issues - Position Paper. 2013: Keilor Park, VIC.
  • HE, W., Diesel exhaust particulates. Inhalation toxicology, 20014. 19(1): p. 241-244.
  • Ris, C., U.S. EPA Health Assessment for Diesel Engine Exhaust: A Review. Inhalation Toxicology, 2007. 19: p. 229-239.
  • EF, O., Internal Combustion Engines and Air Pollution. 3 ed. 1973, New York, NY: Harper and Row.
  • TL, U., Investigation of the Effects of Fuel Composition on Heavy Duty Diesel Engine Emissions.  SAE Technical Paper No. 892072. 1989, Warrendale, PA: Society of Automotive Engineers.
  • Safe-Work-Australia, Guide to managing risks of exposure to diesel exhaust in the workplace. 2015, Safe Work Australia: Canberra, ACT.
  • Model Work Health and Safety Act 2011 2011, Government of Australia Canberra, ACT.
  • Safe-Work-Australia, How to manage work health and safety risks - Code of Practice. 2011, Safe Work Australia: Canberra, ACT.
  • Health-and-Safety-Executive, -.U.-K., Control of diesel engine exhaust emissions in the workplace, 3edn. 2012, UK HSE: Merseyside, UK.
  • WA-Department-of-Mines-and-Petroleum, Guideline - Management of diesel emissions in Western Australian mining operations. 2013, WA Department of Mines and Petroleum: East Perth, WA.

This page was last updated on: Wednesday, October 9, 2019

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