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Non-ionising radiation

Hazard Knowledge

Non-ionising radiation does not cause changes to the molecular structure of living tissue, as opposed to ionising radiation, such as gamma and X-rays, that does have this effect.

However, non-ionising radiation can increase core body temperature, causing thermal damage to exposed sensitive body tissue, such as the skin and eyes and localised limb heating. Its effects also focus on areas where there is a high water content and low blood flow, such as in the muscles and testes.

Non-ionising radiation is the term used to describe the part of the electromagnetic spectrum covering two main regions: optical radiation and electromagnetic fields (EMFs).

Diagram showing the electromagnetic spectrum

Optical radiation

Optical radiation covers ultraviolet radiation, visible light and infrared radiation. While these occur naturally through sunlight, there is also artificial optical radiation which is manufactured for a variety of purposes that include:

  • Germicidal sterilisation
  • Sunbeds
  • Ink curing
  • Photocopying
  • Heating

While the above list is from manufactured sources, artificial optical radiation can be produced during processes such as welding. The Control of Artificial Optical Radiation at Work Regulations and The Control of Artificial Optical Radiation at Work Regulations (Northern Ireland) are in place to protect workers from the risks to health from hazardous sources of artificial optical radiation.

For most people the main source of exposure to ultraviolet radiation is sunlight. Artificial exposure occurs for specific groups such as:

  • People who use and work in tanning facilities
  • People who receive ultraviolet radiation medical treatment
  • People who work with some industrial applications

Low exposure to ultraviolet radiation does not usually cause health-related issues. However, if personnel are exposed to ultraviolet radiation in the ionising radiation spectrum, this has the potential to cause damage to eyes, burns and various types of skin cancer.

For more information refer to:

Electromagnetic fields

An electromagnetic field (EMF) is produced whenever a piece of electrical or electronic equipment is used. Electrical power supplies and appliances are the most common sources of low frequency EMFs.

Mobile telephone, television and radio masts, along with radars and microwave ovens, produce high frequency (also referred to as radiofrequency) EMFs.

There is no evidence to conclude that exposure to low level EMFs is harmful to health. However, the main effect of high frequency EMFs is the heating of body tissues; even short-term exposure to very high levels of EMFs can be harmful to health. Refer to the World Health Organization website for further information.

EMFs may interfere with:

  • The operation of medical implants, such as heart pacemakers or insulin pumps
  • Fire and rescue service communications including radios, mobile phones and telemetry systems
  • Remotely operated equipment, such as aerial platforms operated by wireless controls or drones

For more information refer to:

  • Supplementary information - Mobile phone base stations
  • Supplementary information - Radar
  • Hazard – Electricity
  • Health and Safety Executive (HSE) publication, A guide to the Control of Electromagnetic Fields at Work Regulations; this includes details about electromagnetic fields exposure assessment and equipment with high frequency electromagnetic fields (EMFs)

First responders may need to gain access and work near non-ionising sources of radiation, such as radio frequency (RF) antennas that may be potentially hazardous to health. The antennas may be located on freestanding masts, buildings or street furniture.