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Exposure to asbestos at the workplace

Unfortunately, this is still a current topic.

SW – 04/2021

The EU Commission wants to revise the occupational exposure limits for asbestos. It announced this in its action plan for implementing the European Pillar of Social Rights. Subject to the outcome of the ongoing consultations with the social partners, it will present a legislative proposal in 2022 to further reduce workers' exposure to asbestos.

Initiative for protecting against asbestos 

The European Parliament's committee for Employment and Social Affairs is working on an unsolicited report with recommendations to be made to the Commission about protecting workers from asbestos. In a committee debate on 19 April 2021, the concerned reporter, Nikolaj Villumsen (MEP), pointed out that despite the EU-wide ban on asbestos, around 90,000 people died from asbestos-related diseases in 2019. In its draft report, it calls on the EU Commission to present a European strategy for eliminating asbestos, which should include the following measures:

  • a European framework for national strategies for safe elimination of asbestos in the Member States, including a legislative proposal to introduce minimum standards for publicly accessible national asbestos registers,
  • updating Directive 2009/148/EU about protecting workers from the risks related to being exposed to asbestos at work,
  • a legislative proposal covering the recognition of occupational diseases, including all known asbestos-related diseases, with minimum requirements for the recognition procedures and minimum standards for compensating victims of asbestos-related occupational diseases,
  • updating Directive 2010/31/EU about the energy efficiency of buildings with a view to introducing an obligation to inspect and subsequently remove asbestos and other hazardous substances before the start of any renovation work and
  • a legislative proposal for compulsory buildings inspections before they are sold or rented and for the issuing of asbestos certificates for buildings constructed before 2005.

Background

It is true that the placing of asbestos on the market and using asbestos fibres has been banned in the EU since 2005. However, in the past, asbestos was widely used, especially in the construction sector, because of its great resistance to acids, heat and physical agents. Contact with asbestos and inhaling asbestos fibres can cause diseases such as abdominal, breast and lung and peritoneal cancer in addition to asbestosis. The issue remains topical because of the very long latency period, possibly up to 40 years, of diseases caused by asbestos. The energy-efficient refurbishment of buildings envisaged under the European Green Deal is also highlighting the dangers posed by asbestos.

The EU wants to more than halve greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 compared to 1990 levels, and even reduce them to zero by 2050. To achieve this, the number of energy-efficient building renovations will have to at least double by 2030. In practice, this "building renovation wave" might result in workers in the construction sector as well as consumers being exposed to materials that could contain hazardous asbestos fibres.

Outlook

Members of the committee are currently scheduled to vote on the report at their 30 September 2021 meeting. Accompanying the work of the Committee, the European Parliamentary Research Service has produced a report about the existing legal framework as well as an assessment of the added value of a legislative proposal (available in English only).