29th Sep 2023

EU clashes over protection of workers exposed to asbestos

  • Workers in the construction sector are still exposed to this harmful mineral which is the main cause of workplace fatalities. (Photo: Pexels)
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Asbestos has been banned at EU level for more than 15 years, but many workers, especially in the construction sector, are still exposed to this harmful mineral which is the main cause of workplace fatalities.

In September 2022, the EU commission proposed to review the exposure limits for asbestos fibres, reducing them from 0.1 to 0.01 fibres per cm3 and proposing new and more modern measurement systems.

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In December, the European Council adopted its position and in May this year, the EU parliament confirmed the start of inter-institutional negotiations (known as trilogues) to agree on a final text.

However, while MEPs call for more protection from asbestos for EU workers, member states' position remains closer to the commission's original draft.

In an internal document dated 26 May and seen by EUobserver, the general position of member states is that the parliament's amendments are not "realistic" or "feasible".

The main differences between the EU parliament and EU council positions lie in the timing of the directive's implementation and the exposure limit value — but also in provisions on training requirements, certification of companies, mandatory building inspections, passive exposure, etc.

At the levels proposed by the EU executive and the EU council, the number of deaths related to asbestos exposure would be reduced from 884 to 221 over the next forty years.

At the 0.001 fibres per cubic centimetre demanded by the parliament (and supported by the trade unions), the number of deaths would fall to 26.

Symptoms of asbestos exposure can take twenty to thirty years to appear, and the material is responsible for around 90,000 deaths in the EU each year.

The wave of renovations that the Green Deal will only increase exposure, which already affects between 4.1 and 7.3 million workers, by around four percent.

The parliament is proposing four years, and the council seven years, to implement the new rules, to allow time for technical adaptation of the new system for measuring asbestos fibres.

For the European Construction Industry Federation (FIEC), the parliament's proposals are far from realistic in terms of implementation, warning of the financial impact they would have on construction companies and their clients, and calling for at least five years to adopt the rules.

The cost of occupational cancer in the EU is also significant. According to a study by the European Trade Union Institute (ETUI), it costs between €270 and €610 billion a year, most of which is linked to exposure to asbestos.

"It can hardly come as a surprise to either the Council or the Commission that the Parliament is more ambitious than the draft proposal — especially as we made it clear back in 2021 that we expect an asbestos reform to be broader than just the OEL [occupational exposure limit] value," left-wing MEP Nikolaj Villumsen told EUobserver.

Given the major differences with the parliament's text and its amendments, the Swedish presidency of the EU council intends to propose a revised mandate on the asbestos directive to continue inter-institutional negotiations.

A second meeting of this working group will take place on Thursday (1 June), where delegations will have to provide more details on whether or not they can comply with the parliament's amendments and why.

With this information, the Swedish presidency will ask for a revision of the council mandate.

For The Left MEP, a good compromise between the three institutions is possible, as long as better protection for EU workers is ensured.

"It is clear that the Council will have to agree on broadening the scope and lowering the OEL," he concluded.


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