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5 December 2012

Carcinogens Directive revision: major milestone passed

The European Advisory Committee for Safety and Health at Work (ACSH) adopted an opinion on 5 December in favour of adding new occupational exposure limit values (OELV) to a revised Carcinogens Directive (2004/37/EC).

If the Commission goes with the ACSH opinion, ten new substances, including crystalline silica, refractory ceramic fibres, chromium VI and trichloroethylene*, will soon be added to the list of occupational carcinogens for which a mandatory OELV will apply in all EU countries. The Directive currently contains only three limits, which is a big obstacle to cutting workers’ exposure to the hundreds of carcinogens and mutagens still being used in European workplaces.

The tripartite opinion just adopted at European level by governments and employers’ and workers’ representatives should help jump-start the revision of the Directive which has been in the Commission’s pending tray since 2004. It should give an estimated 10 million European workers better protection from the risks related to exposure to workplace carcinogens.

The Commission now needs to move swiftly to put forward a proposal for a Directive so the European Parliament and Council can do their job, because without a formal proposal from the Commission, the process will go nowhere. Various stages still have to be gone through, not least the impact assessment, although the ability to prevent thousands of unnecessary deaths should be considered sufficient justification for revising the Directive. After that, it will have to be carried over into Member States’ law, so the new provisions are unlikely come into force before 2015.

One thing the ACSH opinion does not do is take up the unions’ call to extend the Directive’s scope to reprotoxins. The ACSH is likely to come back to this in 2013. An integrated approach to prevention that also covers substances toxic to reproduction would make the revised Directive hang together better.

The revision of the Carcinogens Directive was already on the agenda in the EU Strategy on Safety and Health at Work 2002-2006. The Commission’s shilly-shallying has stalled the situation for 10 years. The last substantial revision of the Directive was in 1999.

(*) the other substances are hydrazine, acrylamide, epichlorohydrin, 1,2-dibromoethane, methylenedianiline (MDA) and wood dust (updating an existing OELV).

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