Exposure to carcinogens at work in EU’s crosshairs

Milan, Italy - February 2016: men at work in a center of asbestos storage [Mike Dotta/Shutterstock]

The EU Agency for Safety and Health at Work has launched a joint campaign with the European Commission and the Bulgarian EU Presidency aimed at raising awareness of dangerous substances at work while sounding the alarm about the surging costs related to cancer.

“We have a great deal of European legislation aimed at protecting workers from dangerous substances, but there is a gap when tackling exposure limits on carcinogen,” Marianne Thyssen, Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility told EURACTIV.COM.

The Commissioner spoke to EURACTIV at the launch of an event of the “Healthy Workplaces Manage Dangerous Substances” 2018-2019 campaign by the European Agency for Safety and Health at work (EU-OSHA) on in Brussels on 24 April.

EU leaps forward in attempt to ban carcinogens at work

After more than ten years of inaction, European lawmakers have taken the first step to update EU laws related to the prevention of occupational cancers that are believed to cause 100,000 deaths every year. Trade unions hailed the EU’s decision, which brings an end to years of stalemate.


The EU-wide, two-year campaign will host events and activities aimed at drawing attention to the issue and promoting the best ways of tackling the risks that dangerous substances pose to workers, in particular, carcinogens.

Around 1.6 million people of working age are diagnosed with cancer in Europe every year, the latest figures from the EU-OSHA read. The number of people estimated to develop cancer in the EU as a result of occupational exposure to carcinogens is more than 120,000 people a year, resulting in almost 80,000 deaths per year.

While underlining that the use of dangerous substances at work around Europe “is not decreasing”, EU-OSHA cited estimates from the International Labour Organisation and the EU that show carcinogens cause the majority of fatal occupational diseases in the EU.

In Britain, it is estimated that about 8,000 people die every year from occupational cancer caused by past exposure to carcinogens at work, it said.

The agency also cited a French study which found that young workers and maintenance workers in particular, are often more exposed, sometimes to several carcinogens at the same time.

“Exposure to carcinogens in the workplace causes the majority of fatal occupational diseases in the EU, yet many of these deaths could be prevented if the existing regulations were really being implemented,” Commissioner Thyssen continued.

“We have 24 directives and regulations that deal with occupational safety and health. At the end of the day, it is what is being done on the ground that counts. This is why we need campaigns like this one to raise awareness and show what is possible to be done and implemented in order to reduce exposure to carcinogens and other dangerous substances”.

The Commissioner underlined that member states are responsible for organising inspections on the ground while the European Commission makes the EU regulations that are implemented on the ground.

“But we have to do it in a positive way,” she added. “The European Commission is not there to tell member states ‘you are wrong and we are going to give you a fine’. Instead, the inspection can help and support entrepreneurs to do better in reducing the exposure to dangerous substances at work”.

Workplace cancer prevention must be extended to reprotoxic substances

Putting more than 10 years of paralysis behind it, the European Commission finally launched a revision of the directive on the prevention of occupational cancers in May 2016. Lawmakers can now address reprotoxic substances in the workplace, writes Laurent Vogel.

The cost of cancer 

The direct costs of exposure to carcinogens at work across Europe are estimated at €2.4 billion per year, Christa Sedlatschek, director of EU-OSHA, told EURACTIV.

She stressed that active, participatory safety and health management improves productivity and reduces sickness absence, thus making a business more competitive.

“Smart and experienced employers know they have to do something to avoid costs linked for example to absenteeism or court cases,” Sedlatschek said.

“It is a fact that millions of companies in the EU are using substances, in all industrial sectors. It is therefore important to be able to detect the dangerous substances, especially carcinogens, and apply preventive measures in order to limit the exposure,” she added.

The health effects of exposure to dangerous substances range from mild and temporary effects to serious long-term, life-changing diseases, the agency explained in a note.

These can be poisoning, allergies, skin disease, respiratory diseases, cancers, reproductive problems or birth defects, to only name some of the health problems caused by working with dangerous substances.

Focus on SMEs

“The golden standard in prevention is to eliminate the dangerous substances, make sure that they disappear from workplaces,” Sedlatschek continued.

“But this is not always possible because of missing knowledge and lack of awareness, especially in small and medium-sized companies,” she added.

She explained that large companies have a large infrastructure. “In our network, we have companies like Siemens, SAP or Heineken that show preventive measures are possible to be implemented”.

“These large companies act like role models for smaller companies and they allow us to get access to their contractors – which are SMEs”.

MEPs adopt stricter limits on carcinogens in the workplace

EU lawmakers on Wednesday (30 August) voted on tough new exposure limits to carcinogenic substances in the workplace, in a move they hope will save more than 100,000 lives over the next 50 years.

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