Spain warned by unions not to weaken cancer controls and sacrifice workers’ health

Europe’s top trade union body has condemned Spanish government proposals to reduce the protection for workers against cancer-causing substances.

The government plan is on the pretext of transposing the newly revised European Union (EU) directive on carcinogens or mutagens at work into national law.

The European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC) is urging Spain’s caretaker government to abandon the plan to increase the exposure limits for the workplace carcinogens crystalline silica, acrylamide and bromoethylene.

“Sacrificing workers’ health on the altar of competitiveness is unacceptable,” said ETUC deputy general secretary Per Hilmersson. “It is unthinkable to subsidise companies by allowing them to increase workers’ exposure to cancer-causing substances, and pass the healthcare and others costs to families and society. EU directives on occupational health and safety only define minimum standards. Member States should maintain or have higher levels of protection for workers, not reduce standards to the EU minimum.”

For crystalline silica, the current Spanish occupational exposure limit value is 0.05 mg/m³, in line with the US. However, the draft decree to transpose the EU directive allows for twice as much exposure, with the proposed new level set a 0.1mg/m³.

ETUC says the scientific literature shows that there is a significant mortality rate at this level, from silicosis, lung cancer and other health effects. Researchers have calculated the rate of potentially fatal silicosis is six times higher at the weaker 0.1mg/m³ standard.

For acrylamide, which causes pancreatic cancer, the Spanish government intends to triple the maximum exposure level. For bromoethylene, which causes liver cancer, the government would allow the exposure threshold to be doubled.

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