Radiation at work

Last updated: 19 Dec 2023

This article discusses the health risk posed by exposure to radiation and what your employer should do to manage it.

Radiation is energy given off by matter in the form of waves or particles. Radiation is present in a range of industrial, medical, research and communications applications.

Radiation can be divided into ionising (higher energy) and non-ionising (lower energy). The risks posed by exposure to low levels of both ionising and non-ionising radiation are small. However, exposure to high levels of either type can have serious consequences.

Ionising radiation includes particle radiation (like alpha and beta particles) and the higher energy forms of electromagnetic waves, such as X-rays and gamma rays. Ionising radiation can cause dermatitis, burns, cell damage, cataracts and changes to blood. It can also damage DNA and can cause health effects, such as cancer, later in life.
Non-ionising radiation includes a broad range of electromagnetic radiation with longer wavelengths, such as radio waves, microwaves, infrared, visible light and some types of ultraviolet radiation.

The health effects of exposure to non-ionising radiation depend on its frequency. Extremely low-frequency radiation (at the low end of radio waves) mainly causes sensory effects, such as nausea and vertigo, and nerve stimulation such as tingling and muscle contractions.

Microwaves and higher-frequency radio waves can cause exposed parts of the body to heat up, which can lead to tissue damage. Infrared radiation (a higher frequency) can cause skin burns and cataracts. And UV light (a higher frequency still) can cause burns, skin cancer, conjunctivitis and photokeratitis, a painful inflammation of the cornea also known as arc eye.


Sources of radiation

Exposure to ionising radiation is most likely to occur in manufacturing, construction, engineering, non-destructive testing, medical and dental sectors, education and research establishments and the nuclear industry.
Sectors most likely to see workers exposed to high levels of electromagnetic fields (EMF) include healthcare, energy distribution, engineering, broadcasting, transport and telecommunications.

There are a range of industries that use UV applications, including metalworking, pharmaceutical and research, printing, motor vehicle repairs, and food and drink.

Radon, a type of naturally occurring ionising radiation that is produced by uranium in rocks, is a gas that can seep out of the ground and collect in buildings, mainly underground spaces such as basements. Exposure to high concentrations increases the risk of lung cancer. Radon is the second largest cause of lung cancer in the UK after smoking.

Certain parts of the UK are more likely to be at risk, depending on the area’s geological formation. The government has produced a radon map so people can easily find out whether their home or workplace could be affected.


What your employer should do about radiation

As with other health and safety risks, your employer has a duty to assess and manage the harm that could be caused by exposure to radiation. These duties are set out in the Health and Safety at Work Act and the Management of Health and Safety at Work Regulations. They require employers to reduce the risk of harm to as low as is reasonably practicable.

However, several further health and safety regulations also that apply depending on the type of radiation, which place additional requirements on employers.


Exposure to ionising radiation

The Ionising Radiation Regulations 2017 provide a framework which requires employers to reduce exposure to ionising radiation emitted by radioactive substances to as low as reasonably practicable. This includes naturally occurring substances such as radon, and radiation emitted by electrical equipment.

Employers should first look at ways they can alter the work process and equipment to reduce exposure, before relying on things like safe procedures or PPE.

As a further legal control, the regulations contain dose limits – legal caps on the amount of ionising radiation that people can be exposed to, with lower limits for trainees under the age of 18. There are further dose limits for the skin, the lens of the eye and the extremities. Often, it will be reasonably practicable to keep doses beneath the limit.


Exposure to artificial light

The Control of Artificial Optical Radiation at Work Regulations 2010 require employers to assess the risks of people’s skin or eyes being damaged by hazardous sources of artificial light. This covers sources and forms such as ultraviolet, infrared and laser beams, but excludes sunlight. Using this information, employers must take steps to reduce the risk of harm.

The regulations set out exposure limit values – a maximum permitted level of exposure – for both the skin and eyes. Where this limit is exceeded, the employer must draw up and implement a plan for reducing employees’ exposure.
Exposure to electromagnetic fields (EMFs)

The Control of Electromagnetic Fields at Work Regulations 2016 essentially cover any work where people are exposed to radio and microwaves. They place duties on employers to assess employees’ potential exposure to EMFs.

The regulations’ requirements are based on two sets of values: action levels (ALs) and exposure limit values (ELVs).
ELVs are the legal limits of EMF exposure, but because they are difficult to measure, separate values, ALs, were produced which can be measured more easily.

If the AL is not exceeded, exposure cannot exceed the corresponding ELV. If the AL is exceeded, further consideration and assessment is required to determine whether the corresponding ELV may be exceeded.
If the ELV is exceeded, employers must implement an action plan to reduce employees’ exposure. This could include elements such as;

  • introducing other working methods that entail less exposure to EMF
  • using equipment that emits less intense EMF
  • or providing employees with PPE.

Employers must also give special consideration to employees who are at particular risk, such as expectant mothers, or those who have declared the use of active medical devices. For these workers, they must do a risk assessment and implement the findings.

Sources of EMF which may exceed the ALs include induction heating, radio and TV broadcasting systems and devices, MRI equipment and industrial electrolysis.