On 14 June 2011, the European Commission published a draft directive on the protection of workers exposed to electromagnetic fields to replace a 2004 directive which should have been implemented in Member States by 2008 but was put back for four years.
The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) was involved in both phases of the Commission’s consultation of the European social partners. It believes binding legislation is needed to protect workers from the risks related to exposure to electromagnetic fields, but has misgivings about various aspects of the proposal which it believes is short-changing workers.
Because it is based only on the work of the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) and of selected Member States, the proposed directive covers only the short-term effects of exposure, argues the ETUC.
As a result, it disregards the long-term impacts on workers’ health, despite the International Agency for Research on Cancer’s (IARC) opinion issued on 31 May this year that radiofrequency electromagnetic fields should be classified as possibly carcinogenic to humans (Group 2B).
The ETUC highlights a series of flaws in the proposed Directive’s content: the complex method proposed for setting occupational exposure limits (using two types of values ), higher limits for low frequencies, extending the derogations that allow employers to evade their duty to do a risk assessment, particularly in the armed forces and medical sector.
For this latter sector, the ETUC argues that progress in diagnostic medicine cannot be achieved at the cost of protecting the health of health care personnel, specifically those who operate magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) equipment.
The Electromagnetic Fields Directive should have been implemented in all Member States by 30 April 2008. This deadline was put back to 30 April 2012, and the Council asked the Commission to initiate a review process. This is unprecedented in matters of workers’ health and safety. Many analysts have seen it as a victory for intensive lobbying by MRI equipment manufacturers and radiologists’ associations who deny that low frequency electromagnetic fields endanger patients’ health, and play up the advantages that MRI diagnosis has over imaging techniques based on X-ray absorption. Their campaign had the backing of a majority of MEPs and Member States. It is a thorny debate, so the Commission had a study done on the levels of exposure of workers at four sites, which found instances of the Directive’s limit values being considerably exceeded.
The new proposal has to go through the full Parliament-Council co-decision procedure. Once adopted, the Member States should have to implement it into national law by 2016.
The European Trade Union Institute (ETUI) will be hosting a trade union seminar on the proposal for a Directive this December.