Beating cancer: Better protection of workers against cancer-causing chemicals

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This article is brought to you in association with the European Commission.


Each year, about 120,000 work-related cancer cases occur as a result of exposure to carcinogens at work in the EU, leading to approximately 80,000 fatalities annually. To improve workers’ protection against cancer, the Commission has proposed today to further limit their exposure to cancer-causing chemicals. This fourth revision of the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive sets new or revised limit values for three important substances: acrylonitrile, nickel compounds and benzene. Estimates show that more than 1.1 million workers in a wide range of sectors will benefit from improved protection thanks to the new rules. Today’s proposal is the first initiative of the Commission’s commitment to fight cancer under the upcoming Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan.

Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights, said: “A workplace should be a safe place and yet cancer is the cause of half of the deaths linked to work. Today’s update to the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive is one of the first steps in our ambitious plan to beat cancer. It shows that we are determined to act and will not compromise on workers’ health. In the backdrop of the major health crisis due to COVID-19, we will redouble our efforts to ensure that workers in Europe are protected. We will look into concrete ways on how to achieve this via the future occupational safety and health strategic framework.

Stella Kyriakides, Commissioner for Health and Food Safety, said: “Reducing the suffering caused by cancer is a priority for us, and to do so, prevention is key. Today we are taking an important step to protect our workers from the exposure to hazardous substances in the workplace and start our work under our upcoming Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan. With the Plan, we will aim to tackle the main risk factors of cancer for everyone, but also to guide patients at every step of their journey and contribute to improving the life of those affected by this disease.”

Three new or revised limit values

The Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive is regularly updated in line with new scientific evidence and technical data. Three previous updates have addressed workers’ exposure to 26 chemicals. Today’s proposal adds new or revised occupational exposure limits for the following substances:

  • Acrylonitrile (new limit);
  • Nickel compounds (new limit);
  • Benzene (limit revised downwards).

Benefits for workers and companies

Introducing new or revised occupational exposure limits for acrylonitrile, nickel compounds and benzene will have clear benefits for workers. Work-related cases of cancer and other serious illnesses will be prevented, improving health and quality of life.

The proposal will also benefit companies by reducing costs caused by work-related ill health and cancer, such as absences and insurance payments.

Development of the proposal and next steps

This initiative has been developed in close collaboration with scientists, and with representatives of workers, employers, and EU Member States. Social partners (trade unions and employers’ organisations) were also involved through a two-phase consultation.

The Commission’s proposal will now be negotiated by the European Parliament and the Council.

Background

This Commission has committed to step up the fight against cancer and will present, before the end of 2020, Europe’s Beating Cancer Plan. The Plan will support Member States to improve the prevention, detection, treatment and management of cancer in the EU while reducing health inequalities between and within Member States.

In its Communication on “A strong social Europe for just transitions”, the Commission has committed to review the occupational health and safety (OSH) strategy to address among others the exposure to dangerous substances, with a view to maintain European’s high OSH standards. This is in line with the European Pillar of Social Rights, jointly proclaimed by the European Parliament, the Council and the Commission at the Social Summit for Fair Jobs and Growth on 17 November 2017, which enshrines workers’ right to a healthy, safe and well-adapted work environment, including protection from carcinogens.

Further improving the protection of workers from occupational cancer is all the more important since according to EU-OSHA, cancer is the first cause of work-related deaths in the EU: 52% of annual occupational deaths are currently attributed to work-related cancers, compared to 24% to circulatory diseases, 22% to other diseases and 2% for injuries.

This initiative is the fourth revision of the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive. Over the last few years, the Commission proposed three initiatives amending this piece of legislation. These three initiatives were adopted by the European Parliament and the Council in December 2017, January 2019 and June 2019, addressing 26 substances.

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