ETUC: Asbestos protections too little, too late

Asbestos protections too little, too late

A new European asbestos exposure limit will be too little and too late to protect workers from cancer, trade unions are warning today as the European Parliament publishes its report on the issue.

The European Parliament voted in October 2021 for a new limit of 0,001 fibres/cm3, based on the finding by the International Commission of Occupational Health that any limit higher than that would not protect sufficiently against asbestos related cancer.

But today’s report recommends an asbestos exposure limit that is ten times higher than that limit.

The five year time period recommended for the implementation revision is also far too long at a time when there are 90,000 asbestos-related deaths a year in Europe and there are not sufficient enforcement mechanisms included to make this revision a reality for frontline workers.

That is particularly reckless when the EU’s own Renovation Wave programme will increase the number of construction workers coming into contact with asbestos as they demolish or renovate old buildings which are more likely to contain the substance.

Firefighters, teachers and office workers are among other workers who will continue to be exposed to a substance which accounts for more than half of occupational-cancer deaths in the EU and worldwide.  The report must protect all workers coming into contact with asbestos and those subjected to direct or background exposure. 

Despite that, the report by Véronique Trillet-Lenoir MEP includes a number of important improvements on the European Commission’s proposal, notably the inclusion of mandatory minimum training requirements for asbestos workers and the elimination of the concept of 'sporadic and low intensity exposure' to justify the waving of some requirements of the directive. 

ETUC Deputy General Secretary Claes-Mikael Stahl said:

“Today’s report addresses a number of shortcomings in the Commission’s proposal for a revision of Europe’s asbestos protections, but it would still be too little, too late to protect working people from cancer.

“The science has not changed in the last two years so it’s not clear why the Parliament is recommending an asbestos exposure limit ten times higher than the one it voted for in October 2021.

“We urge MEPs to listen to the experts and set an exposure limit that will provide people real protection from the biggest cause of workplace cancer deaths in the EU.

“It would be particularly irresponsible of EU policymakers to set an unsafe exposure limit after introducing a policy in the Renovation Wave which will see many more workers exposed to asbestos.”

EFBWW General Secretary Tom Deleu said:

“While we welcome the progress made in the discussions on better protecting workers against the asbestos threat, we are also surprised to see the unexpected change of direction by the Rapporteur regarding the exposure limit.”

“We know that we have the technical means today to reach a 1.000 fibres per m³ exposure limit. We cannot compromise on workers lives. We insist that the Parliaments report from October 2021 continues to be the basis for future trialogue discussions and workers expect an ambitious outcome.”

“Failing to do so will expose thousands of construction workers on a daily basis to high levels of asbestos exposure. The renovation wave will then end up in a new asbestos and cancer pandemic. This is not acceptable.”  

EPSU General Secretary Jan Willem Goudriaan said:

“While taking some of the points that EPSU has campaigned with its affiliates on mandatory decontamination of fire fighters and more protection and training for waste workers, the parliament proposal lacks the urgency that these workers need.

“Everyday firefighters and emergency workers operate in buildings without knowing whether asbestos is present, with a consequent lack of possibility to take appropriate measures and record their exposure.

“Fire fighters are now exposed to fires in buildings built in 1950s and '60s, they need more constringent Occupational Exposure Limit.”