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21 June 2019

Third revision of the directive on the prevention of occupational cancers

The process of revising the directive remained at a standstill for the ten years with Barroso at the head of the European Commission (2004-2014). It was relaunched in 2016 as a result of strong pressure put on the European Commission by the Netherlands, other Member States, trade unions and the European Parliament.

On 19 June 2019, the Official Journal of the European Union finally published the text of the third revision of the directive protecting workers from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens (Directive 2019/983 (EU) of 5 June 2019).

The overall revision is taking place in steps. This third revision is the last to be adopted under the Commission presidency of Jean-Claude Juncker. “The next team will have to take over and continue the process”, said the outgoing president.

The revision introduces four new occupational exposure limit values (OELVs) for cadmium, beryllium, MOCA[1] and formaldehyde.  Transition periods (i.e. periods during which workers may remain exposed to less-protective concentrations) for some of these OELVs are foreseen. In the case of cadmium, the transition period is much too long, lasting until July 2027.

The maximum number of workers exposed in Europe to formaldehyde is estimated to be 2.2 million, to cadmium and its compounds 300,000, to beryllium and its compounds 75,000 and to MOCA 350 .

Two important points

This latest revision clarifies the scope of the rules protecting workers. In the European Union, many carcinogens are subject not to a harmonised classification but to a self-classification carried out by suppliers. The directive now stipulates that prevention measures have to be adopted for both categories of substances, i.e. substances with a harmonised classification as 1A (proven carcinogenicity) or 1B (suspected carcinogenicity) carcinogens and mutagens, as well as substances classified in the same categories by their producers or importers. This clarification is very important as it eliminates all doubt concerning several thousand substances considered as being carcinogenic or mutagenic by the producers themselves. These substances have to be eliminated or substituted from workplaces or, when substitution is technically impossible, the other prevention measures provided for under EU legislation have to be applied.

The Directive obliges the European Commission to make legislative proposals concerning the protection of workers exposed to hazardous drugs (including cytotoxic drugs primarily used for cancer treatment). This is a major step forward, especially in the knowledge that 12.7 million workers (for the most part nurses) are exposed to carcinogenic, mutagenic or reprotoxic drugs, primarily in the healthcare sector.

It remains to be seen whether the Commission will comply with this obligation: its current track record in this field is not very positive. For instance, the Commission was obliged to make proposals on protection against reprotoxic substances by 31 March 2019 at the latest. All that the Commission managed to do by this date was to circulate a study compiled by external consultants, without adopting any official position. According to several experts, the study in question was very much biased, in particular minimising the role played by endocrine disruptors. It also took a cost-benefit approach, thereby subordinating the fundamental right to health to purely economic considerations based on very speculative hypotheses.

Following the publication of the third revision of the directive, Member States now have to transpose it into their national legislation by 11 July 2021 at the latest. The OELVs set are minimum requirements, i.e. national legislative measures providing better protection against occupational cancers can be adopted, for instance skipping or shortening the transition periods or adopting more stringent OELVs.

[1]4,4′-Methylene-bis(2-chloroaniline), a substance used in the production of plastics.

Further reading:

Directive (EU) 2019/983 of the European Parliament and of the Council of 5 June 2019 amending Directive 2004/37/EC on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens or mutagens at work

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