European Trade Union Institute, ETUI.

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13 May 2016

Revision of European legislation on occupational cancers: only a small step forward

On 11 May the European Commission adopted a proposal for a revision of the Directive on the prevention of occupational cancers. The text proposes to adopt binding occupational exposure limits (OELs) for 13 substances. The previous directive only provided for three. The ETUI welcomes the fact that, after more than 10 years of procrastination, the European Commission has finally decided to strengthen its legislation against carcinogens in the workplace. It believes that the proposal does not go far enough, however.

According to Laurent Vogel, researcher at ETUI, ‘the positive thing is that the legislative process is now open and it will be possible to amend this initial proposal. Its content remains minimalist. No article of the directive has been improved. Only Annex 3 on OELs has been modified substantially. It only deals with 13 carcinogens, however, which is far too few in comparison with the demands of the Dutch presidency’.

The Dutch government, which has the presidency of the European Union for the first six months of 2016, is demanding the introduction of 50 OELs. For its part the ETUC has come up with a list of 71 substances or procedures which it considers should be subject to an OEL.

The Commission has announced that 12 other OELs will be subject to a legislative proposal at the end of 2016. It has not committed itself with regard to further initiatives.

In terms of content the proposed OELs for a certain number of substances are much higher than those adopted in many Member States. The most characteristic example is crystalline silica, a substance that causes diseases and cancers of the respiratory system. The Commission proposes an OEL of 100 micrograms per cubic metre, whereas Denmark, Finland and Spain impose an OEL of 50 micrograms, as does the United States. The European limit will not suffice to protect the 5 million workers who are exposed to it in the European Union.

The ball is now in the court of the European Parliament and the Council of Ministers. They can amend the Commission proposal in order to strengthen the protection of workers against the risk of cancer. They can in particular extend the Directive’s scope of application to reprotoxins, which constitute a significant risk in the workplace which is missing from the proposal formulated by the Commission.

Revision of the Directive on the exposure of workers to carcinogens and mutagens, first announced in 2002, has long been held up by the Commission itself. As part of its campaign ‘Better Regulation’ it refused to improve the protection of workers against cancer, citing the ‘burden’ that this would represent for companies.

The convergent criticisms of the European Parliament, numerous Member States, the public health community and trade union organisations have made it possible to call this paralysis into question. The fact that more than 100,000 people die each year as a result of a cancer caused by work explains this convergence.

Read more:

ETUC press release: Cancer victory for workers (11 May 2016)

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