The European Union’s Beating Cancer Plan is Europe’s main initiative to tackle the disease. But does it go far enough in addressing the hazards that workers in particular might face that could increase their risks, especially given that cancer causes around half of all deaths that are related to work?
The European Commission has recently presented a legislative proposal on occupational safety and health (OSH). The proposed fourth revision of the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive (CMD) sets new or revised binding occupational exposure limit values for three substances that can cause cancer.
These measures are intended to reduce the approximately 120,000 work-related cancer cases that occur because of exposure to carcinogens in the EU, leading to approximately 80,000 fatalities annually. With this revision, new or updated limits will have been put on 27 carcinogens since 2014.
Certainly the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) does not feel that the EU has gone far enough, as in their view they have taken no action to limit exposure to 20 more cancer-causing substances, while existing exposure limits for common workplace carcinogens like crystalline silica, diesel emissions and asbestos do not offer sufficient protection and urgently need to be updated. ETUC said that its objective is to have binding occupational exposure limits under the CMD for at least 50 priority carcinogens by 2024. It has called for a new coherent and transparent system of setting EU exposure limits based on those of Germany and the Netherlands, noting that up to 12% of all cancer cases are work-related.
Serious reflection should be given to the implications of the EU’s Renovation Wave policy. Although it is essential the that the EU upgrade European buildings in relation to energy efficiency and sustainability, it should also be remembered that construction workers are likely to be exposed to more insulation products and waste as the new initiative unfolds.
Particular attention should be paid to the fact that workers in the construction sector need additional protection when dealing with mineral wool (also known as Manmade Vitreous Fibres or MMVF), a commonly used insulation material.
Mineral wool is manufactured with the carcinogen formaldehyde as binder, which has been on the trade union’s priority list, and was regulated under the CMD in 2019. The EU Regulation on Classification, Labelling and Packaging of substances classifies mineral wool itself in general as a suspected carcinogen. However, certain exemptions apply, and the CMD does not currently protect workers from mineral wool.
As usual in Brussels, the European Parliament and the Council will have the opportunity to amend the proposed revision of the CMD before adopting it. The European Commission is expected to adopt the broader Beating Cancer Plan later this year. This will then give scope for the EU institutions to address any concerns about the use of mineral wool in the legislative process.