New EU occupational cancer protection in sight after trade union pressure

MEPs are being urged by trade unions back an agreement, between the European Council and Parliament (and supported this week by the Parliament’s Employment Committee), to give workers more and better protection against occupational cancer.

“This is an important victory for trade unions which have campaigned for many years to stop the pandemic of occupational cancers,” said Esther Lynch, Confederal Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC). It is hard to believe that in 21st century Europe we still see companies maximising profits at the expense of their workforce and future generations. It is good to see that the EU is beginning to respond again to the needs of working people.

The agreement reached by the EU institutions, on the first revision of the Directive on Carcinogens and Mutagens, approves the introduction of binding occupational exposure limits (OELs) for an additional 11 cancer-causing substances including chromium (VI) compounds and crystalline silica, and goes far beyond what the European Commission originally proposed. For instance, Member States will now have to organise lifelong health surveillance for workers exposed to carcinogens. The agreement also requires the European Commission to explore the possibility of extending the scope of the Directive to include reproductive toxicants by 2019.

“Improved health surveillance will help save many lives” said Lynch “and protection from exposure to reproductive toxicants, if implemented, should prevent miscarriages, congenital malformations and serious health problems among the future children of exposed workers."

A second revision of the Directive with binding OELs for 5 more carcinogens, published by the European Commission in January 2017, is still waiting approval by the European Parliament and Council. A third revision with OELs for other carcinogens has been promised in early 2018 by Marianne Thyssen, the Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs.

The revision of the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive (2004/37/EC) began in 2004. It was shelved for almost 10 years before becoming a priority once again for the Commission following trade union pressure.

The ETUC aims to get binding OELs adopted for 50 priority carcinogens by the end of 2020, and urges employers to engage in negotiations for further action to tackle work-related cancers. Occupational cancers are the leading cause of work-related deaths: with more than 100,000 deaths every year in the EU.