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31 January 2008

REACH, exposure limits and nanotechnologies on the agenda of a seminar on protecting workers from chemicals

A shake-up in chemicals marketing through implementation of the REACH regulation, revision of the directive protecting workers against carcinogens, setting occupational exposure limit values for a new series of chemical substances: the EU is back to business in 2008 with a densely packed agenda on chemical hazards control.
The potential impact on workers' health makes these big challenges in the European trade union book. Their enormous technical complexity requires input from external experts with ties to academia, and a forthright dialogue with the representatives of the European institutions. Tony Musu, the ETUI-REHS’ chemical hazards expert, had drawn up a more than ample agenda for this third “Worker protection and chemicals” seminar.
The labelling and classification of chemicals was the first item of business. In June 2007, the Commission put forward a proposal to bring EU law into line with the Globally Harmonized System (GHS) - a United Nations scheme to harmonize the different hazardous chemical classification and labelling (C&L) systems worldwide. The European proposal for a GHS Regulation still has to be adopted by Parliament and Council, which ought to happen by next July at the latest, according to Alick Morris of DG Social Affairs. That will usher in a seven year transitional period during which the EU legislation (Directive 67/548/EEC for classification and labelling (C&L) of dangerous chemical substances and Directive 1999/45/EEC for C&L of dangerous preparations) will live alongside the GHS regulation.
During this time, therefore, workers will have to cope with different labels and risk phrases for the same type of product depending on which C&L system the producer has chosen. Trade unionists fear that having these two systems running in tandem for a relatively long period is likely to make it even harder for workers to see their way through the already complex system that is meant to inform them about the hazardous substances they have to handle. That might explain the Commission representative’s playing up of the need for workers to be given training.
Trade unions are also concerned about what impact GHS implementation might have on the EU law that protects workers against dangerous chemicals. Mr. Morris sought to offer reassurance: “The GHS criteria for classifying carcinogenic and mutagen substances are comparable to those in the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive.”
Hildo Krop, a researcher with IVAM, a Dutch sustainable development institute, was distinctly less sanguine about the impact of GHS on worker protection. He argued that GHS will make it even harder for workers to get hold of toxicological data, especially for mixtures. “GHS will downgrade the quality of labelling and classification, as well as safety data sheets”, he argued.
The second debate on day one of the seminar - on occupational exposure limit values - will have done little to allay union fears. Tony Musu set out the ETUC’s stall on the current revision of the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive. Getting reprotoxins included in the Directive is top of the European trade union organization’s agenda. The ETUC also wants tighter exposure limits that take better account of recent scientific knowledge to be adopted for benzene, hardwood dust and vinyl chloride monomer, the only three carcinogens for which binding exposure limits have been set in the directive.
The European trade unions also want substances that are recognized as carcinogens by the WHO and some European States (crystalline silica and softwood dust, in particular) to be included in the revised Directive.
New systems for setting exposure limits recently adopted in the Netherlands and Germany were presented and sparked an instructive debate between trade union representatives on their organizations’ involvement in this kind of supremely scientific process. The consensus was that the top priority was to replace carcinogens by less toxic substances, and that setting exposure limits for carcinogens must remain a secondary aim.
There was no way a seminar on protecting workers from chemical hazards could ignore the REACH regulation, in force since June 2007. Emilio Gatti of the Milanese section of Italy’s CISL trade union confederation gave a presentation on his organization’s activities to support REACH implementation in Lombardy workplaces. Dominique Defriese, of Belgium’s FGTB trade union, presented a very detailed guide to how REACH works that will be supplied to workers' reps in Belgian firms. The ETUI-REHS is adapting it to be put out soon in several European languages.
REACH provides a system of authorization before chemicals that are most dangerous to human health can be put on the market. A list of priority substances that will require authorization is to be drawn up in the next few months. Third parties (NGOs, civil society, business concerns, etc.) will be allowed to send certain information in to the competent European authorities. Tatiana Santos of ISTAS, a research institute with links to Spain’s Workers’ Committees, argued that European trade unions must grasp this opportunity to call attention to the substances of highest concern found in work places.
Active trade union involvement also looks to be needed where nanotechnologies are concerned. Growing industrial use of nanomaterials (for manufacturing sports equipment, sunscreens, paints, etc.) is causing widespread concern not just among consumers but also among material producers. The European Commission clearly has little reassurance to offer them at this stage. “The environmental and health risks related to nanomaterials are in theory covered by the EU regulatory framework”, said DG Environment’s Henrik Laursen. He nevertheless acknowledged that, “implementation of that regulatory framework remains difficult, due to the lack of scientific data and rapid pace of change in the market”. The Commission representative believes that the requirements of REACH apply to nanomaterials but admits that the regulation contains no specific provisions on nanomaterials. The trade union attendees argued that civil society and the institutions had to exercise tighter control over these infinitely small technologies. The German and British codes of conduct presented at the seminar might be worthwhile avenues of exploration.

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