Protecting workers: stricter limits on cancer-causing substances

Met dank overgenomen van Europees Parlement (EP) i, gepubliceerd op woensdag 30 augustus 2017, 18:01.
  • Lower exposure limits for harmful substances in workplace
  • Workers in textile, steel and wood sectors particularly affected
  • Up to 100 000 lives could be saved over the next 50 years

Workers in textile, steel and wood sectors are particularly at risk of exposure to carcinogens ©AP Images/European Union - EP

New EU rules to protect workers from carcinogens and mutagens in the workplace were voted in by the Employment Committee.

The legislation, approved by 42 votes in favour, none against and 8 abstentions and already informally agreed with EU Ministers, sets EU-wide rules to eliminate and reduce all carcinogens and mutagens in workplaces.

Employers will have to assess the risk of exposure for workers and take preventive measures. This should tackle the primary cause of work-related deaths in the EU, i.e. cancer. The aim is to help save up to 100 000 lives over the next 50 years.

It includes a lower “occupational exposure limit (OEL)”, i.e. a maximum quantity of harmful substances that workers can be exposed to, for:

  • chromium VI, used in textile dyes, paints and leather tanning materials and generated during the casting, welding or cutting of stainless steel
  • hardwood dust, produced, for instance, by cutting or pulverising wood
  • vinyl chloride monomer, mainly used to produce PVC

MEPs ensured that the Commission will have to assess the possibility of including reprotoxic substances, i.e. those having effects on sexual function and fertility, by the first quarter of 2019.

Health surveillance

New rules also establish that the national authority responsible for the health surveillance of workers can decide that health surveillance must continue after the end of exposure, for as long as needed to safeguard health.

Agreed thresholds

For chromium VI, a limit value of 0,010 mg/m3 will be in place for the first 5 years after the date on which it is applicable in national law, subsequently lowered to 0,005 mg/m3 afterwards. A derogation for welding, plasma cutting or similar processes puts a limit of 0.025 mg/m3 for the first 5 years and 0,005 mg/m3 thereafter.

For hard wood dust, a limit is set at 3 mg/m3 for five years after the entry into force of the directive and is thereafter lowered to 2 mg/m3.

Next steps

The Parliament will put the draft directive to the final vote during one of forthcoming plenaries.

Quick Facts

Cancer is the leading cause of work-related deaths in the EU. Annually, 53% of occupational deaths are attributed to cancer, compared with 28% for circulatory diseases and 6% for respiratory ones. The most common types of occupational cancer are lung cancer, mesothelioma (caused by exposure to asbestos particles) and bladder cancer. The World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that every tenth lung cancer death is closely related to workplace risks.

A recent study shows that more than 1% of the workers are exposed to reprotoxic substances, which means that between 2 and 3 million could be affected in the EU. The current legislative protection against such substances is limited to the general provisions of the chemical agents’ directive, while the EU legislation on pregnant workers does not impose preventative measures. Exposure can reduce male or female fertility and cause death or malformations of foetuses.