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
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.