In the wake of a damning report highlighting concerning levels of air pollution in Toronto’s subway system, some TTC operators say they’re being barred from wearing medical masks while on the job.

Yesterday, a study published in the journal of Environment Science & Technology found the air quality levels on TTC subway platforms and tunnels are similar to that of smog-prone Beijing on an average day.

More specifically, the study found that the concentration of fine particulate matter inside the TTC subway system was approximately ten times higher than what a person would endure on ground level.

Todd, who did not provide his last name, says he’s been a subway operator with the TTC for more than 20 years.

He said he’s troubled by the study.

“I’m always stuffed up… clogged nose,” he said. “It’s horrible down there.”

Todd said he decided to wear a medical mask to work yesterday in an effort to reduce his exposure to pollution.

But when he and three other TTC employees showed up for their shifts with masks, they were sent home.

The union representing TTC workers believes the employees are being penalized for their protective gear and being told that by wearing the masks they’re “refusing to work.”

“Everyone in Beijing wears masks, so why can’t we wear masks?” Kevin Morton, the Amalgamated Transit Unit Local 113 Secretary-Treasurer, told CTV News Toronto on Wednesday. “And if a customer can wear a mask, why can’t an operator on a subway line wear one?”

The union blasted the TTC for the results of the study Tuesday, saying it “raises serious health concerns” for its members.

Morton said equating a medical mask to refusing work is a slippery slope for the TTC.

“He’s going back down to the division at Danforth and stating that I want to work with a mask. What are you doing to do? Are you doing to let me work? If not you’re not going to let me work, are you going to give me alternate work? If you’re not going to give me alternate work, are you going to fire me?” he said.

In a statement, the TTC says there’s no need for subway operators to wear masks.

“Masks are unnecessary and, therefore, not permitted,” the statement reads. “If a worker refuses work, the Ministry of Labour is called and that has happened.”

Earlier, in a memo sent to employees by the TTC’s chief safety officer, the transit agency downplayed the study.

“This study is based on research done in 2010 and 2011 and was designed to measure airborne dust as a function of particle size. It did not draw any conclusions about the impact of that air on health,” the memo reads.

“The analysis confirmed that the dust is primarily iron from the steel rail and wheels. Previously TTC subway air quality studies have already reviewed occupational exposures to the individual components found in this dust and concluded that it does not present a significant health risk.”

The memo goes on to say that the TTC have already taken steps to improve air quality in the subway system when the research was being conducted in 2010 and 2011.

The TTC says they have already purchased a new “track vacuum car outfitted with gold-standard high efficiently particulate air filtration system” as well as various other tools to clean stations and tunnels.

But TTC operators like Todd say that the current risk still makes them feel uneasy and that taking small measures – like wearing medical masks – is a temporary preventative measure until air quality is improved.

“If I knew better, I would have liked to have a lung test from when I first started and again when I retire, just to see where I fit,” he said.