EU carcinogens legislation can be divided into two categories: that on marketing of carcinogens, and that on protecting workers exposed to them. Both classes of rules exist in tandem, and employers who produce or use these carcinogens have to comply with the obligations arising out of both.
The law on marketing carcinogenic substances is found in a slew of complex regulations and directives, which have been or soon will be amended or even scrapped as REACH, the new European law on the trade in chemicals which came in on 1 June 2007, is progressively implemented.
The main law dealing specifically with worker protection is the Carcinogens Directive. This piece of legislation, currently being revised, lays down an order of priority in obligations on employers to reduce the use of carcinogens at work.
The overriding obligation is to replace the carcinogen with a substance which is not dangerous or is less so. Where a safer alternative exists, the employer must use it whatever the cost to the business. Where substitution proves “technically impossible”, the employer must ensure that the carcinogen is manufactured or used in a closed system. If he cannot take this safety step, he must ensure that the workers’ exposure is “reduced to as low a level as is technically possible”. The Carcinogens Directive also provides for occupational exposure limit values to be established.
On 11 May 2016, after more than 10 years of procrastination, the European Commission adopted a proposal for a revision of the Directive on the prevention of occupational cancers. The text proposes to adopt binding occupational exposure limits (OELs) for 13 substances. The previous directive only provided for three. Some of these 13 agents, such as respirable crystalline silica (RCS), chromium (VI) compounds, hard wood dusts or hydrazine, concern a very large number of workers.
On 12 December 2017, the European Parliament and the Council adopted the new legislation in relation with the first phase of the revision of the 2004 directive. The text must be transposed into the national legislations of the EU Member States by 2019.