Getting recognition of occupational diseases caused by asbestos is still an obstacle course in the European Union (EU). This social injustice is made worse by the lack of harmonized criteria for the recognition of occupational diseases. Wide differences remain between EU countries over the recognition of mesothelioma (pleural or peritoneal cancer). The non-recognition of asbestos-related lung cancer is probably even greater. The data on asbestosis (inflammation of the lungs) also point to wide disparities. Compared to an average 30 cases of asbestosis per million workers recognized as occupational diseases in the EU, there is 1 case per million in Portugal, 28 in the United Kingdom, 30 in France, 59 in Germany and 96 in Belgium.
While improved recognition of asbestos-related diseases in occupational disease compensation systems is vital, there is also a good case to be made for establishing specific funds to provide better compensation for all victims (including self-employed workers, family members who have suffered exposure in the home, etc.). The track record of funds established in France and the Netherlands could be a model for other countries.
Along with recognition, available treatments for occupational diseases must be improved. Legal action against those immediately responsible for exposing workers to asbestos is especially important, as occupational disease compensation schemes only provide relatively small lump-sum compensation amounts compared to the full compensation available where fault is proved. On the political front, it is time that employers who damage their workers’ health stopped being let-off virtually scot-free.
Outside the EU, asbestos is anything but history. Europeans bear a special responsibility in the battle for a global asbestos ban, because in most cases it was European businesses that developed asbestos production and use.
The asbestos mines of Brazil, South Africa, Zimbabwe, Quebec and many other countries were created with European capital. The profits were returned to Europe, leaving behind deaths and an environmental disaster. The Turner and Newall and Etex-Eternit groups exemplify the all-pervasiveness of European capital in the asbestos production and using industries. Even today, many European multinationals apply double standards, operating asbestos-free in Europe but still using asbestos elsewhere in the world.
Waste management is another way of exporting the risks of death to developing countries. Ships riddled with asbestos and other toxic substances are commonly sent to Asia to be broken up in appalling conditions.
Solidarity and action by the European trade union movement are therefore key in the coming battles to get a world ban on asbestos.
For thirty-odd years, asbestos workers’ groups have struggled to get official recognition for all asbestos victims and the fullest compensation for the harm they have suffered.
Their fight is starting to pay off, especially in countries where victims have sought redress through the courts, as in France where the civil courts have found against asbestos industrialists in many cases in recent years. The lid that kept the risks of asbestos under wraps has now been lifted once for all.
Criminal investigations have even been launched in some cases in France and Italy. Rightly so, because industry has long known what diseases asbestos causes and has wilfully continued to expose countless people both inside and outside workplaces to this poison. Stiff penalties have been imposed - including jail time - against former production site managers.
On 13 February 2012, after a trial lasting almost three years, a court in Turin sentenced Swiss billionaire Stephan Schmidheiny and Belgium’s Baron Louis Cartier de Marchienne to sixteen years in jail. These former executives of the Eternit group were found guilty of having triggered ‘a permanent health and environmental catastrophe’ which led to the deaths of some 3,000 people in Italy, both former workers and residents of four areas where Eternit-Italy had its factories.
- A trial with far-reaching implications (pdf - 465.54 Kb)
- History-making trial in Turin: Eternit in the dock for more than 2000 deaths (pdf - 126.47 Kb)
- Former asbestos cement workers search for justice (pdf - 120.03 Kb)
- "Asbestos Attorney" wants to put industry offenders in the dock (pdf - 195.54 Kb)
- Book: Eternit and the Great Asbestos Trial
The EU Directive of 26 July 1999 banned the marketing and use of products containing asbestos. It allowed an exemption for a transitional period that should have ended on 1 January 2008 for electrolysis plants using asbestos-containing diaphragms. In June 2009, under pressure from two chemical companies (Dow Chemical and Solvay), the Commission decided to extend that exemption, even though asbestos-free alternatives exist and are used by other companies. The ETUC and European Parliament lambasted the decision which was taken at the behest of DG Enterprise.
As far as EU labour law goes, any activity that exposes workers to asbestos fibres during the extraction of asbestos, or the manufacturing and processing of asbestos products, is prohibited by a Directive adopted in 2003 which came into force three years later. It marks a step forward. The new wording of Article 5 implies a ban in practice on the continued production of asbestos-containing materials or products for export. Other points of progress include lowering the exposure limit to 0.1 fibre/cm3 and expanding the scope of the Directive.
That being said, the Directive on the protection of workers exposed to asbestos does have some shortcomings: it does not cover self-employed workers, it does not require asbestos removal work to be performed by licensed contractors, and it does not require a list of exposed workers to be made, even though their health cannot be effectively monitored otherwise.