MEPs unite to protect workers from toxic asbestos in ‘historic’ vote

The plenary by a vast majority adopted the report on Protecting Workers from Asbestos, with recommendations to the Commission. [Andre Quinou/SHUTTERSTOCK]

The European Parliament has voted by a vast majority to adopt a report on protecting workers from asbestos in what has been dubbed a “historic” move.

The report, put forward by the Danish MEP Nikolaj Villumsen from the Left group in the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, gained support from a large majority of 675 in favour to two votes against and 23 abstentions on Tuesday (19 October).

Voting followed the debate that took place on Monday (18 October), during which European Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, Nicolas Schmit, said that “the report will go down in history”. 

Thanking Parliament for their support, Villumsen said that “we owe that to all construction workers in Europe, we owe that because our words about a green transition have to become reality”.

It comes at the time when the renovation wave of the European Green Pact aims to renovate 35 million inefficient buildings by 2030.

While this offers an opportunity to remove asbestos, a toxic chemical that used to be commonly used in construction, it also puts the construction workers at risk of exposure.

To address this, the report proposes developing a comprehensive European strategy for the removal of all asbestos (ESRAA) in the EU by using the synergies of several policy areas, including the Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan and new EU strategic framework for health and safety at work, to safely remove asbestos from the built environment.

It also calls for accessible asbestos registries for workers and companies, owners, inhabitants, and users of buildings, as well as updating the asbestos at work directive regarding some of the procedural and technical requirements and compensating asbestos-related occupational diseases. 

MEPs are calling for complete elimination of cancer-causing asbestos

The European Parliament has called for the creation of a strategy to completely eliminate cancer-causing asbestos in a bid to strengthen workers’ protection and reduce exposure to this common chemical.

The European Federation of Buildings and Woodworkers (EFBWW) welcomed the vote, with EFBWW general secretary Tom Deleu calling this a “groundbreaking victory for all the construction workers, firefighters, miners, and workers in cleaning or waste disposal, who are regularly exposed to asbestos”. 

“We now call on the European Commission to follow the steps of the EP and legislate accordingly. Anything less than this will be unacceptable and an offense to workers and citizens’ confidence in the EU,” he added.

Asbestos is a group of six naturally occurring minerals made up of thin, microscopic fibres.

Thanks to their heat and chemical resistance, asbestos was commonly used as a building material and can be found in a number of products, including roofing shingles and water supply lines.

But exposure to asbestos can lead to a number of serious health problems, including cancer of the lung, larynx, and ovaries, and also mesothelioma.

The risk comes not only from inhaling fibres but also from ingesting water containing such fibres, which increases the risk of gastric and colorectal cancers.

Due to health risks, asbestos was banned at the European level in 2005, but it can still be found in many buildings and is the first cause of work-related cancers.

As of 2018, 125 million people worldwide have been exposed to asbestos in the workplace while the number of annual asbestos-related deaths in the EU28 reached more than  90,000 in 2019.

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[Edited by Natasha Foote/Zoran Radosavljevic]

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