Protecting workers' health is a crucial issue

The revision of the directive on carcinogens and mutagens is 10 years in the waiting - there's no time to waste, says Claude Rolin.

Claude Rolin | Photo credit: European Parliament audiovisual

By Claude Rolin

30 Jun 2017

There is a saying in French that goes, "le travail c'est la santé" - "work is health". Yet many professions present risks for workers. This is the case for those who are exposed to carcinogens or mutagens, which are present, among others, in the industrial and construction sectors. 

In order to address this, the EU has taken steps to prevent - or at least, reduce - the exposure of workers to these dangerous substances, by reconciling public health and SMEs' activities.

Several directives lay out minimum objectives the member states must reach, and establish a threshold up to which exposure to these substances is not a threat to workers' health. These legislative initiatives come from the Commission - based on recommendations from the scientific committee on occupational exposure limits (SCOEL) and social partners within the advisory committee on health and safety at work - are then discussed in Parliament.


This is how the revision of the directive on carcinogens and mutagens at work ended up before Parliament's employment and social affairs committee. The Commission has split the revision of the directive into several batches, corresponding to different substances being looked at. S&D group MEP Marita Ulvskog is rapporteur on the first phase, and I am the EPP group shadow rapporteur.

I will later take over from her as rapporteur on the second batch, with the same guiding principle: to efficiently protect workers' health. Over the last few months, we have met different stakeholders and, of course, social partners, who are on the ground every day and have an important role to play.

In Parliament, we are working to build political compromises. This work has been fruitful: in a committee vote last February, a majority of MEPs supported introducing stricter exposure limits than what the Commission suggested, for three substances: hard wood dust, chromium VI compounds and respirable crystalline silica.

Behind these somewhat complex terms lies a concrete reality: that of millions of workers are risking their health by simply doing their job if appropriate safety measures are not taken. This is what we are arguing in trilogue meetings with the Commission and Council, in order to establish binding measures.

I also call on the Commission to expand its proposal scope to reprotoxics, which affect the reproductive system and foetus development of pregnant women.

These discussions are tough, but Parliament aims to defend the most ambitious and pragmatic text possible to best protect workers. Beyond the institutional process, which can sometimes be complicated, it is crucial to act at European level and in cooperation with every member state and the social partners, in order to improve working conditions. Some countries are already applying such rules, while others are lagging behind.

While the trilogues carry on, Parliament's employment and social affairs committee will, on 13 July, organise a hearing with members of the health and work safety sectors, as well as social partners and scientists from the SCOEL, whose independence must be guaranteed.

We waited over 10 years for a revision of this directive to be on the table. Needless to say how urgently we need mandatory effective protection and sufficient precaution for workers.

Our work to reach a consensus continues, step by step, in order to identify other noxious substances. We also call for better medical monitoring of workers, including after they have stopped working, because often, work-related illnesses start years after exposure, and are detected very - sometimes too - late.

In order to fulfil the objective to "better protect workers' health, make EU legislation more efficient, clarify the legal framework and instil fairer conditions for economic actors," we must promote a work environment that is healthy on the long term. 

We must do this step by step, pragmatically, with strengthened political will at Council level. Council wants to base its decisions on impact assessments, but it would be harmful to delay the adoption of this revision because, as I'm sure you have understood by now, this is a crucial public health issue.


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