The European trade unions are calling on the EU legislators to revamp the current system to set Occupational Exposure Limits Values (OELs) within the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive (CMD). The new system should be based on low risks of contracting cancer and not on cost-benefit analysis, they say.

At the end of September 2020, the European Commission (EC) launched the legislative process for the fourth revision of the directive on the protection of workers from the risks of exposure to carcinogens and mutagens at work.  While the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) welcomes the initiative, it considers a new coherent and transparent system of setting OELs should be part of the revision.

ETUI, the research institute of ETUC has therefore prepared a briefing note explaining how the new system should work.

The pressing issue of updating and ameliorating the present mechanism to set binding OELs under the CMD is demanded by European legislation in Article 168 of the TFEU that states: "A high level of human health protection shall be ensured in the definition and implementation of all Union policies and activities". 

Until now, the methodology used to derive OELs, based on cost-benefit analysis,  has repeatedly violated such principle by setting binding OELs on some carcinogens with a very high level of risk, the briefing note reads.

According to ETUI researchers, the new system should be based on low risks of contracting cancer, like in the national system to set limit values for carcinogens in Germany and in The Netherlands.

The new system should also be more transparent and provide specific information for each binding OEL, such as specifying whether the OEL is health-based or risk-based. In case of the latter, the residual cancer risk linked to the numerical value of the OEL should always be indicated. Moreover, a mandatory action plan should be added in the employers' risk assessment to make the exposure minimisation obligation clear for exposed workers and enforcement authorities.

OELs are a quantitative benchmark for occupational exposure to hazardous chemicals in the workplace, including carcinogens. They are set to prevent occupational diseases like occupational cancers or other adverse effects in exposed workers. Employers use OELs as a tool to assess the risks for exposed workers and select appropriate preventive measures. 

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