Commission outlines new legislation to combat occupational cancer

The EU has made a fresh attempt to combat the leading cause of work-related deaths in Europe.

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By Martin Banks

09 Apr 2018

Under new legislation outlined by the European Commission on Thursday, workers’ exposure to five cancer-causing chemicals will be strictly limited.

This comes in addition to the 21 substances that have already been limited or proposed to be limited since the start of the Commission’s mandate.

The five chemicals will now be covered by the EU’s carcinogens and mutagens directive, which sets a maximum concentration for the presence of a cancer-causing chemical in the workplace air.


The five carcinogens include cadmium, beryllium, arsenic acid and formaldehyde.

Some of the carcinogens are said to be extensively used in a range of industries, ranging from battery manufacture and mechanical plating to zinc, copper smelting to plastics and recycling.

The Commission says the move is another important step to protect workers in the EU from workplace-related cancer, as well as other health problems. 

Cancer is the leading cause of work-related deaths in the EU. 

Annually, 53 per cent of occupational deaths are attributed to cancer, compared with 28 per cent for circulatory diseases and six per cent for respiratory ones. The most common types of occupational cancer are lung cancer, mesothelioma (caused by exposure to asbestos particles) and bladder cancer. 

The World Health Organisation estimates that every tenth lung cancer death is closely related to workplace risks.

A recent study shows that more than one per cent of the workers are exposed to reprotoxic substances, which means that between two and three million could be affected in the EU. 

Exposure can reduce male or female fertility and cause death or malformations of foetuses.

The Commission says that estimates show that the new proposal will improve working conditions for over one million EU workers and prevent over 22,000 cases of work-related illness.

Speaking at the launch of the initiative in Brussels, Marianne Thyssen, European Commissioner for employment, social affairs, skills and labour mobility, said, “This is another important step towards fighting work-related cancer and other relevant health problems on the work floor. 

“We propose to limit workers’ exposure to five additional cancer-causing chemicals. This will improve protection for over one million workers in Europe and help create a healthier and safer workplace, which is a core principle of the European Pillar of Social Rights.”

The proposal is, says the Commission, based on scientific evidence and follows “broad discussions” with relevant stakeholders, in particular employers, workers and member state representatives.

The move is the latest EU attempt to tackle the issue of work-related deaths.

On 27 March, MEPs approved separate new EU rules to protect workers from carcinogens and mutagens in the workplace.

Members of Parliament’s employment and social affairs committee backed the Commission proposal to set exposure limit values - the maximum amount that a substance should be present in workplace air - for harmful carcinogens.

They also agreed to regulate exposure levels for oils used in automobile, rail, marine and aero-transport engines and portable machinery

A study showed that the workers who are most at risk from workplace carcinogens are employed in construction, the metal industry, tool manufacture and car and repair industries.

The research presented to the committee also said that workers employed in low-qualified jobs are more frequently exposed to high levels of carcinogens than white-collar workers.

Parliament’s rapporteur on the dossier, Claude Rolin, a Belgian EPP group MEP, said, “Firms and workers will be made more aware of the substances they have been handling and will be able to reduce exposure to these materials. Cancer is the main cause of workers’ deaths in the European Union.”

Rolin added, “I hope that an initiative like this can inspire further improvements to standards.”


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