“This is important news for the health of workers across Europe,” said Esther Lynch, ETUC confederal secretary, “and a hard-won victory for workers and their trade unions. Although some of the exposure limits are inadequate, and some substances are not included, this is a significant step forward. After 12 years of inaction the European Commission has finally listened to demands to protect workers better from work-related cancer.”
She added: “I am expecting the Commission to put forward exposure limits for at least 15 more substances by the end of the year.”
ETUC notes that exposure limits do not replace employers’ obligation to eliminate and substitute toxic substances in the workplace. It says 100,000 people die in the EU every year from preventable work-related cancers, adding it has called repeatedly for limits to be extended to more cancer-causing substances.
The Commission’s proposal for binding occupational exposure limits for 13 substances brings to 16 the total number of substances covered by exposure limits under EU law.
One of the new limits considered by unions to be inadequate is a 0.1mg/m3 limit for respirable silica. This is the UK’s current standard, but twice the 0.05mg/m3 standard being introduced in the US and four times Canada’s 0.025mg/m3 limit. In the EU, Finland, Italy and Portugal already have a silica standard at or below the 0.05mg/m3 US limit.
Steven Wodka, a leading US occupational disease lawyer, said he was concerned about the proposed limits for some of the other substances, citing the case of ortho-toluidine, a potent cause of bladder cancer.
He said the EC-recommended standard was never exceeded at the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Company plant in Niagara Falls, USA. However the plant still had a bladder cancer rate more than six times the expected level in the highest exposed groups, and more than double the expected level across the workforce.