Toolbox Talk: Diesel Exhaust

By Published On: February 17, 2022

Diesel Exhaust

While the world of construction equipment is changing to electric and environmentally friendly options, the power and reliability of diesel engines still remain atop the equipment food chain. On a construction site these engines can be found in small scale items like pumps and generators, to the largest earth movers. As with any fuel burner, diesel engines come with some health hazards that need to be considered.

What is the hazard

Exhaust from diesel engines contains a mixture of gases and very small particles called DPM (diesel particulate matter)

DPM includes soot particles made up primarily of carbon, ash, metallic abrasion particles, sulfates and silicates.

Diesel soot particles have a solid core consisting of elemental carbon, with other substances attached to the surface, including organic carbon compounds known as aromatic hydrocarbons.


Short Term: headache, dizziness, and irritation of the eye, nose and throat.

Long Term: In 2012 diesel exhaust was listed as a known carcinogen, prolonged exposure can increase the risk of cardiovascular, cardiopulmonary and respiratory disease, and lung cancer.

How to prevent

Engineering controls are the most effective strategy for minimizing worker exposure. These are physical changes that we make to the equipment or workspace to remove the exhaust before it effects the people working in the space.

  • Routine preventive maintenance of diesel engines to minimize emissions
  • Installing engine exhaust filters and upgrading to equipment with DEF treatment.
  • Using special fuels or fuel additives (e.g., bio-diesel and DEF)
  • Providing equipment cabs with filtered air

DEF – Diesel Exhaust Fluid is a steady stream of liquid sprayed into the exhaust that reduces the amount of harmful emissions leaving the engine.

Administrative controls – The rules that we set up for our employees and others using our equipment. These are only effective when they are enforced, and could look like:

  • Minimize traffic on site
  • Prohibiting or restricting idling
  • Restricting the amount of diesel-powered equipment
  • Designate areas that are off-limits for diesel engine operation (i.e. indoors or in tight spaces with many pedestrians/workers)


Questions for you

  1. When was the last time your diesel powered equipment had maintenance to the exhaust system?
  2. Do you have rules set up for engine warm-up, idling, and routine maintenance?
  3. Are you aware of the symptoms of short term exhaust exposures?

Here are a few Toolbox Talks related to this topic: Carbon Monoxide, Gasoline, Motor Vehicle Safety

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