Asbestos exposure limits tightened to better protect workers in 'EU Green Deal' era

A new asbestos directive aims to implement safer working conditions in a wider series of changes being labelled as the EU Green Deal era.

In brief:

  • The EU has approved a series of recommendations intended to protect workers who come into contact with cancer-causing asbestos
  • All Member States will have to significantly lower exposure rates in a phased programe of up to six years 
  • Concerns remain for employees left unprotected while the transition takes place 

In detail: 

In a landmark decision, the European Union has committed to significantly bolstering worker protection against asbestos, a notorious cancer-causing agent. However, concerns remain over the timeline for implementing such complex changes as delays mean a lack of protection for many involved in imminent EU Green Deal renovations.

Under the decision, the EU resolved to enforce a stringent occupational exposure limit for asbestos, setting it at 2,000 fibres/m³ in contrast with the current limit of 100,000 fibres/m³.

This new regulation emerges from the tripartite negotiations among the European Commission, Council, and Parliament, which are focused on revising the Directive on asbestos at work.

While it represents positive action, the roll-out of the Directive will be gradual, with the programme stating that: 

  • Member states must decrease workers' exposure to asbestos a limit of 10,000 fibres/mwithin two years 
  • This limit must be further reduced to 2,000 fibres/mwithin six years 
  • States must transition to the advanced technique of electron microscopy for fibre counting – a method lauded for its precision – also within six years.

The urgency of the directive is underscored by the sobering statistic that asbestos-related cancers claim approximately 90,000 lives annually in the EU, positioning it as the primary cause of workplace deaths.

An estimated four to seven million workers are currently exposed to asbestos, a figure expected to increase due to the Green Deal's renovation initiatives. In light of this, European trade unions are advocating for a swifter implementation of the lower exposure limit.

European Trade Union Confederation deputy general secretary Claes-Mikael Ståhl expressed approval albeit with caution, and said: "Today's agreement is an important step forward in ending the scandal of workplace cancer. But the long implementation period means that workers won't benefit from the safer limit until after much of the renovation wave has been completed."

Ståhl's statement reflects a broader call to action for Member States to expedite the adoption of safer limits to protect workers during the Green Deal's ambitious renovation projects.

Echoing this sentiment, European Federation of Building and Woodworkers general secretary Tom Deleu emphasised the trialogue's achievement as a vital measure to shield construction workers from asbestos.

Deleu urged European institutions to ratify the compromise swiftly, and stated: "This will be the only way to ensure that real steps are taken to protect workers and to reduce the prospect of an asbestos pandemic caused by the Renovation Wave."

The European trade union movement remains steadfast in its push for more research, enhanced training, and company certification, alongside a call to end exemptions from the rules.

Its stance is committed to investment in preventive measures, rigorous training for construction workers, and robust enforcement, including frequent inspections and substantial sanctions, is paramount.

As the EU takes a decisive step towards mitigating the asbestos hazard in workplaces, the focus now shifts to Member States and their willingness to act promptly, ensuring the health and safety of millions of workers amidst a transformative period for the European construction landscape.

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