MEPs adopt stricter limits on carcinogens in the workplace

Hardwood dust is among the hazardous substances that will be more strictly regulated. [nakonechnyi_o/Shutterstock]

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.

Carcinogens are by far the biggest hazard to the EU’s workforce. Cancer accounts for 53% of all work-related deaths in the bloc, well ahead of circulatory diseases (28%) and respiratory diseases (6%).

Workers in the textiles, steel and wood sectors are at the highest risk of exposure to carcinogens and mutagens, chemicals that alter DNA and may also cause cancer, also covered in the directive adopted on Wednesday.

Chromium VI, used in textile dyes and paints and generated when welding and cutting stainless steel, hardwood dust, produced when cutting wood and vinyl chloride monomer, used to produce PVC, will all be subject to stricter occupational exposure limits (OEL) following the vote in the European Parliament’s employment committee (EMPL).

Speaking to on Thursday, EMPL committee members welcomed the vote as a big step for worker protection in the EU.

“With any legislation you can always go further and want more. But I do believe that we got the best outcome we could for workers in Europe so I am very happy,” said Swedish Social Democrats MEP Marita Ulvskog (S&D) and rapporteur on the legislation.

The feeling was echoed by the Green group’s lead lawmaker on the issue, the French Europe Écologie MEP Karima Delli (Greens/EFA), who welcomed the cross-party cooperation that had made the adoption of the news rules possible. Delli highlighted the “ambitious limits for Chromium IV and hardwood dust” that the Parliament set, despite resistance from the Council, “which was pushing for weaker limits that would have exposed workers to cancer risks ten times higher”.

The directive was adopted by 42 votes in favour to zero against, with eight abstentions. It will be put to a plenary vote in the parliament later this year and member states will have two years to implement it.

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.

Progress in medical observation

Delli also hailed the requirement under the directive for long-term medical observation of at-risk workers as “real progress […] that will guarantee the health and safety of workers”.

“Experience shows, sadly, that diseases often develop several years after exposure to these toxic substances,” she added.

The committee also voted to oblige the European Commission to assess whether to include substances that harm sexual function and fertility in the rules by early 2019.

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.

Broad business backing and next steps

“I am convinced though that businesses see the benefits of protecting workers from harmful substances,” said Ulvskog, adding that certain business representatives had put up resistance during the drafting of the directive.

“This legislation also helps to create a level playing field. We should not be competing on the basis of poor conditions for workers,” she said.

Delli added that the legislation will only be really meaningful if it is followed up by further measures. “After this first agreement, the Commission’s objective of widening the field of the 2004 carcinogens or mutagens at work directive to more than 50 new substances is still a long way off.”

Toxic diesel emissions are among the substances Ulvskog hopes will be included in the future. “There is no proposal yet for a limit value for diesel exhaust despite that this was promised at an early stage, that is something we will be looking closer at,” she said.

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