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11 October 2019

The Spanish government reconsiders workers’ protection from carcinogens

Pool Moncloa/J.M. Cuadrado

Under the pretext of transposing a European directive and boosting the competitiveness of Spanish companies, Spain’s caretaker government is proposing to reduce the protection levels for carcinogens, thereby potentially impacting exposed workers’ health.

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On 8 October, the Spanish government presented the national occupational health and safety commission with a draft decree transposing the European directive on the protection  of workers from carcinogens.

The draft provides for a reduction of the protection levels already adopted in Spain. As regards crystalline silica, the Spanish occupational exposure limit value (OELV) is currently 0.05 mg/m³. Under the draft decree, this would be doubled (0.1mg/m³). The scientific literature shows that such a level results in a high number of deaths linked to silicosis, lung cancer and other diseases. As for acrylamide, a cause of pancreatic cancer, the Spanish government intends to triple the maximum exposure level, while it would be doubled for bromoethylene (vinyl bromide), a cause of liver cancer.

The government states that this major step backwards in occupational health legislation is justified, citing an alignment of Spanish OELVs with the EU directive. It would also help improve the competitiveness of Spanish companies. Spanish unions reject this argument, arguing that the EU occupational health directives only specify minimum standards. Each Member State is able to maintain or adopt national rules providing workers with a higher level of protection.

In the view of ETUI researcher Laurent Vogel, “the Spanish government’s proposal is all the more shocking given the fact that we are seeing new cases of silicosis in Spain among young workers tasked with cutting artificial stone worktops. The European OELV for silica is too low and needs to be urgently revised in line with European Parliament demands. In 2003, the SCOEL, the European Commission’s advisory body on such matters, recommended an OELV below 0.05 mg/m³. Following the logic used by the Spanish government, the minimum standards would be transformed into maximum standards, preventing any effective prevention policy. In principle, the Spanish Constitution does not allow a caretaker government to go ahead with political choices possibly affecting the orientations of the next government. Sacrificing the lives of thousands of people to meet the demands of business lobbies is a major political move and not a simple decision relating to current affairs.”

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Photo Credit: Pool Moncloa/J.M. Cuadrado 

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