EU steps up workers’ protection against carcinogenic substances

It is estimated that 13 million workers will be directly affected by these provisions. [SHUTTERSTOCK/Samy.S]

On Thursday (3 March) the Council gave the final green light to an update on the EU rules on reducing workers’ exposure to carcinogens, mutagens, or reprotoxic substances, addressing the first cause of work-related deaths in Europe. 

The update of carcinogens and mutagens directive (CMD) revises the limit values for three key carcinogens widely used in the EU, extends the rules to reprotoxic substances and hazardous medicinal products. Member states have two years following adoption to comply with the agreed changes.

Jobs and social rights European Commissioner, Nicolas Schmit, speaking at the plenary on 17 February called the revision “ambitious” speaking before lawmakers in Strasbourg. “It is another significant step forward in improving the health of EU workers and it also shows that Europe cares about the health of its citizens and workers,” he added.

Cancer is the first cause of work-related deaths in the EU, responsible for 52% of annual occupational deaths, “and that is far too much,” said French MEP from ID group and member of legal affairs committee, Gilles Lebreton.

In comparison, 24% of work-related deaths are attributed to circulatory diseases, 22% to other diseases and 2% to injuries. The revision comes in line with the commission’s fight against cancer, which is one of the priorities for the period from 2019 to 2024.

Italian MEP from ID group and a rapporteur of the file, Stefania Zambelli, called it “a huge success for everyone”, highlighting “the 13 million workers directly affected by these provisions”. This is important for sectors such as the oil sector, textile manufacturing, construction, the chemical sector, and, also, the healthcare sector.

“This is definitely a great achievement in our common fight against cancer,” she said.

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Revising the limits

The revised rules provide occupational exposure limits for acrylonitrile and nickel compounds and revise the maximum limit for benzene downwards, according to the EU press release. Schmit estimated that “it will improve the protection of more than 1 million workers in the EU.”

Moreover, by the end of 2022, the Commission has to present additional occupational exposure limit values for 25 substances or groups of substances.

And that is not all.  The press release continues that “in 2022, a procedure to reduce the occupational exposure limits for crystalline silica dust, exposure to which causes particularly serious and disabling effects such as lung cancer and silicosis”, should be launched by the commission.

“We have already planned the fifth revision addressing five additional chemicals. And therefore such an action plan is fully in line with the Commission’s desire to constantly improve the protection of workers against occupational cancer,” Schmit told parliamentarians.

Including reprotoxic substances

For the first time, reprotoxic substances were included within the scope of the Directive. “Reprotoxic substances are harmful to reproduction and can cause impaired fertility or infertility,” as it is stated in the press release.

Reprotoxic substances may interfere with the human reproductive system as they pose severe threats to fertility and unborn children. They are present in many working environments as they are used in plasticizers and materials such as glass.

Consequently, the directive will be renamed the carcinogens, mutagens and reprotoxic substances directive (CMRD).

“This is a major victory when it comes to protecting the health of workers, in particular those workers who work in health care,” Zambelli said, adding that 2 million people in the EU are exposed to these types of substances.

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Training for healthcare workers

“A further important objective that we achieved was in relation to hazardous medicinal products,”  Zambelli said.

She added: “There are some medicinal products which are fundamental in fighting cancer, but they are dangerous for those who handle, prepare and administer those substances.”

Therefore healthcare workers who deal with hazardous medicinal products (HMPs), half of which are reprotoxic, “must receive sufficient and appropriate training on how to handle them safely.”

“It’s a major step forward for the entire healthcare system and people working in hospitals. 12 million healthcare workers every year are exposed to dangerous or hazardous medicinal products: doctors, nurses, technicians working in labs, pretty much anyone working in hospitals,” Zambelli said.

Based on the agreed text, the Commission now has to establish an indicative list of HMPs and provide guidelines for handling these substances, particularly in hospitals, by the end of 2022.

Schmit assured that he is “strongly committed to publishing these guidelines by the end of this year”. 

“We have to better protect those who every day take care of those patients who need these treatments,” he said. The Commissioner added that the guidelines “will not just be there, they have to be implemented and their implementation also has to be controlled”.

[Edited by Alice Taylor/Nathalie Weatherald]

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