Asbestos still a danger for workers

These are the measures the EU is planning to take against the problem.

78% of occupational cancers recognised in the Member States are related to asbestos. It is estimated that currently 4.1 to 7.3 million workers are exposed to asbestos, of which 97% work in the construction sector. This is caused by a substantial legacy problem: many older buildings which are likely to be renovated, adapted or demolished in the years ahead still contain asbestos. Furthermore, there is known to be an average time lag of 30 years between exposure and the first signs of disease.

Cindy Franssen MEP (EPP) is committed to tackling this issue thoroughly. As shadow rapporteur, Cindy put great effort into drafting the European Parliament's strongly worded resolution.

The European Commission has published its proposal in response to the resolution, which is now being debated in the EMPL committee. Here Cindy defended the strong wording of the EP resolution.

The Council already issued a directive in 1983, which went through several substantial amendments until the most recent codified version of 2009. It is known as directive 2009/148/EC on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to asbestos at work, abbreviated to the Asbestos at Work Directive (AWD). But this directive will need extensive amendment if the European Parliament is to achieve its goal of an asbestos-free future. Furthermore, new scientific findings have emerged since the last substantial revision.

An important role in this issue is played by the Carcinogens, Mutagens and Reprotoxic Substances Directive 2004/37/EC (CMRD). This includes an exposure minimisation requirement related to the currently fixed binding occupational exposure limit (OEL) of 0.1 fibres/cm³ as an 8-hour time-weighted average.

Significant improvements in this EU-wide OEL are now possible on the basis of the new findings, which also include measurement techniques. It is also important to underline that the Committee for Risk Assessment of the European Chemicals Agency confirmed that asbestos does not have a safe exposure level. This is an extra argument for strengthening the legislation.

In brief, the European Commission proposes the following amendments to the Asbestos at Work Directive:

  • The provisions of the CMRD Directive shall apply if this is more beneficial to the health and safety of workers at work.
  • All types of asbestos shall be identified.
  • A number of measures shall be introduced to reduce worker exposure to the lowest technically possible level.
  • The current method of counting fibres by phase-contrast microscopy shall be continued while also using new electron microscopy methods.
  • It shall be ensured that no worker is exposed to an airborne concentration of asbestos in excess of 0.01 fibres per cm³ as an 8-hour time-weighted average.
  • Employers shall be required to obtain information from the owners of premises and from other sources of information, including relevant registers.
  • Employers shall keep a register with information on the workers engaged in the activities, stating the nature, duration and exposure. Doctors, medical surveillance authorities and workers and/or their representatives shall have access to the register.

The resolution of the European Parliament went further than this. The suggestions of the workers’ organizations mirror the proposals of the European Parliament resolution. The OEL limit should be 0.001 fibres/cm³. Fibre counting must be replaced by more modern and sensitive electron microscopy methods. There should be mandatory screening of buildings, or national asbestos registers should be kept. A legislative proposal should also be made for recognising occupational diseases, with minimum standards for recognition procedures and for the compensation of victims.