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12 July 2017

Key milestone in the fight against occupational cancers

On 11 July 2017, the Committee of Permanent Representatives (Coreper) approved a draft compromise on revisions to the Directive on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens or mutagens at work, negotiated between the Maltese Presidency of the Council of the EU and the European Parliament as part of the first phase of the revision process. The occupational exposure limit values (OELs) set out in this document should ensure that much more is done to protect workers.

The compromise represents a genuine step forward from the legislative proposal tabled by the Commission in May 2016.

Developments to be welcomed include the following:

(1)  The OEL for chromium VI will be 0,005 mg/m³, after a transitional period of five years during which the OEL will be 0,01mg/m³ (with the exception of welding processes and similar processes which generate fumes, where the OEL will be 0,025 mg/m³). The European Parliament initially adopted an amendment setting this OEL at 0,001 mg/m³, while the European Commission was in favour of a value 25 times higher, which would have resulted in an extremely high level of risk (one case of lung cancer for every 10 exposed workers);

(2)  The OEL for hardwood dust will be set at 2 mg/m³ after a transitional period of five years (the Commission was initially in favour of an OEL of 3 mg/m³);

(3)  Health surveillance for workers exposed to carcinogens, which was previously limited to the period during which the workers were exposed to these substances, will be enshrined in the Directive as a general principle. Since the majority of cancers occur many years after initial exposure, this amendment is likely to save many lives;

(4)  One of the most hotly debated issues was the inclusion of reprotoxic substances within the Directive’s scope of application in line with Parliament’s demands. The compromise adds a legally binding provision to the Directive stating that this matter must be revisited by the Commission by 2019 at the latest.

These positive aspects were offset by the lack of significant progress in relation to respiratory crystalline silica, with no change to the Commission’s initial proposal for an OEL of 0.1 mg/m³, although the Commission has undertaken to examine the need to reduce this OEL when drafting its next five-yearly report on the application of the Directive. The OEL recommended by the European Parliament was 0.05 mg/m³ after a transitional period of 10 years; the difference between these two figures is equivalent to around 2 000 deaths per year.

The compromise means that the first phase of the revision process is all but complete, with the second phase already under way thanks to a proposal for five new OELs tabled by the Commission in January 2017. The third phase is scheduled to start in early 2018.

Laurent Vogel, ETUI researcher, analysed these developments as follows: ‘This compromise highlights the major differences in opinion between the two institutions responsible for adopting the legislation. The overwhelming majority of MEPs – 85% – voted in favour of greater protection for workers against the risks of cancer, but the Council of Ministers was very divided on the issue. Two Member States (the United Kingdom and Poland) opposed all of Parliament’s amendments, favouring the Commission’s minimalist approach instead, while a dozen or so Member States backed the amendments. The other Member States either took up positions somewhere in between these two extremes or failed to adopt a clear position.’

Vogel went on to say that: ‘It is important to keep up the pressure in order to ensure that the OEL for crystalline silica is revised in the near future and thousands of avoidable deaths are prevented, and also that reprotoxic substances are brought within the Directive’s scope in 2019.’

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