Existing exposure limits to be reviewed.

SW – 04/2020

According to the World Health Organization (WHO), about 125 million people worldwide are exposed to asbestos at work (as of February 2018). It is estimated that asbestos causes half of all deaths from occupational cancer.

The European Commission wants to review the exposure limits for asbestos and has commissioned the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) to conduct this review. ECHA has now published a call for comments and evidence on asbestos and its properties. As part of the scientific assessment of occupational exposure limits, it wants to collect information on exposure, health effects, toxicology, epidemiology and modes of action. The deadline for providing input is 2 June 2020.

In its Opinion on ‘Working with Asbestos in Energy Renovation’ from May 2019, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) called on the Commission to review the existing limit value of 100 000 fibres/m3 for asbestos fibres in the EU as per Directive 2009/148/EC on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to asbestos at work. It bases this on a recommendation from the International Commission on Occupational Health (ICOH), which advocates reducing the limit value to 1 000 fibres/m3.

Referring to ICOH statistics, the EESC points out that asbestos causes some 88 000 deaths in Europe each year and is responsible for 55-85% of occupational lung cancer. Asbestos continues to be a major cause of occupational cancer in Europe. Despite the ban on asbestos, mortality rates are expected to continue to rise until the end of the 2020s and possibly into the 2030s.

The EESC also believes that recognition and compensation procedures for asbestos victims must be improved and access to the necessary information must be facilitated to enable affected workers to obtain legal, financial and personal assistance.

In its answer to a parliamentary question, the Commission stated that, in its Recommendation 2003/670/EC on the European schedule of occupational diseases, it recommends that the Member States ensure their national legal systems include provisions on scientifically recognised occupational diseases for which compensation is liable. A number of occupational diseases linked to asbestos exposure, such as silicosis, asbestosis and mesothelioma, were explicitly mentioned in Annex I of the Recommendation. However, the Commission also pointed out that recommendations are not legally binding. The definition of the procedure for recognising occupational diseases and their compensation fall within the exclusive competence of the Member States.


The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) is planning to carry out a survey on workers’ exposure to cancer risk factors. The survey will examine the most common exposure situations and the number and characteristics of workers exposed to a wide range of cancer risk factors, such as asbestos, benzene, chromium, diesel exhaust, nickel, silica dust, UV radiation and wood dust. EU-OSHA wants to contribute to evidence-based policy-making. Work on the survey is due to start this year and EU-OSHA plans to publish the first results in 2023.

The European Parliament’s Committee on Employment and Social Affairs will also address the issue of protecting workers from asbestos and is expected to ask the Commission to present suitable proposals for a legal initiative in a resolution.