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28 February 2017

First victory in the fight against occupational cancers

On 28 February, the European Parliament’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs voted in favour of various amendments to the European Commission’s proposal for a directive amending Directive 2004/37/EC on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens or mutagens at work.

A particularly important amendment relates to reprotoxics, which the MEPs believe should be covered by the scope of the Directive. At present, millions of workers in Europe are exposed to these substances, which reduce fertility, cause miscarriage and birth defects and result in serious health problems for children (childhood cancers, developmental disorders and learning delays, etc.).

Another key amendment relates to the occupational exposure limit (OEL) for crystalline silica, which is to be set at 50 μg/m3 instead of the 100 μg/m3 proposed by the Commission and pro-industry lobbyists, although a 10 year transitional period is planned for Member States which do not wish to impose the OEL immediately.

Other substances which pose a risk to the health of millions of European workers also feature in the amendments voted through on 28 February. Parliament recommends adopting an OEL of 2 mg/m3 for all wood dusts (with a five-year transitional period), and an OEL of 1 μg/m3 for chromium (VI) instead of the 25 μg/m3 proposed by the Commission and industry.

Other amendments relate to the need to ensure that all workers exposed to carcinogens are entitled to early detection screening.

The vote is merely one step on the long journey towards adoption of a directive which will allow many more thousands of lives to be saved each year than the minimalist proposals put forward by the Commission and lobbied for by industry.

Most of the amendments were voted through with a very large majority (up to 85% of votes).

Parliament will vote on the amendments at its plenary session in April 2017, and the final text will then be negotiated between Parliament and the Council. The fact that the parliamentary report was voted through by 38 votes to 6 suggests that the balance of opinion is in favour of making significant changes to the legislative proposal, despite aggressive campaigning in favour of the Commission’s minimalist approach.

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