Europe Advancing Asbestos Protections
On June 27, 2023, it was announced that a political agreement had been reached by negotiators from the European Parliament and the European Council which would increase protections for EU workers. Revisions of the Asbestos at Work Directive will not only drastically reduce asbestos exposures, but will also: ensure the use of more accurate ways to measure exposure levels in line with the latest technology; implement protocols to better control work by asbestos removal and demolition companies; and mandate the establishment of national registers of all those diagnosed with asbestos-related occupational diseases.1
As per the terms of the agreement, during a transition period Member States must reduce the occupational exposure limit (OEL) to 0.01 fibers of asbestos per cm³; this level is ten times lower than the current limit of 0.1 f/cm³. After the transition period, Member States will be able to set:
Once formal approval by the European Parliament and Council have been given, Member States will have two years to introduce the new maximum exposure level of 0.01 f/per cm³ and six years to introduce electron microscopy protocols for measuring asbestos fiber levels. To ensure that the legislative protections are in sync with scientific and technological developments, the directive will be regularly updated.
The agreement was, said European Commissioner for Trade Valdis Dombrovskis another milestone in the EUs commitment to occupational safety and health:
While asbestos can no longer be produced or used in the EU, there is a legacy problem with asbestos used in buildings many years ago. This claims about 88,000 lives in Europe annually. The revised directive contains stricter obligations to better protect workers, as we embark on a Renovation Wave to meet our climate commitments. To also improve the protection of the wider public, the Commission is working on an initiative for the screening and registration of asbestos in buildings.
Dragoş Pîslaru, from the European Parliaments Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, was greatly relieved that a compromise had been reached:
We have all been living at risk due to asbestos fibres that slowly shatter our health. At work, school, shopping, we are and have been exposed to their damaging effect. The EU is strongly committed to protect its workers and their health. Now, we can say that we created a piece of legislation that will impact for good both our and our childrens health for a lifetime. Asbestos will be strictly controlled due to the agreement that the EP and the Council reached today and our health and lungs will be safer.3
Member of the European Parliament Cindy Franssen, negotiator for the file in the Committee on Employment and Social Affairs, called the agreement a win-win situation for both workers and employers. On the one hand, she said workers will be better protected from the dangers of asbestos. On the other hand, employers will have sufficient time to prepare for the ambitious but necessary protection levels.4
Trade union leaders were not quite so effusive, pointing out that up to 7 million EU workers were exposed to asbestos at work and that this number would grow by 4% over the next ten years as a result of building renovations carried out as part of the EUs Green Deal. Commenting on the details of the deal, Deputy General Secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation Claes-Mikael Stahl said:
For decades, the lives of millions of people have been cruelly cut short by cancer because they were unknowingly exposed to asbestos at work. Todays agreement is an important step forward in ending the scandal of workplace cancer. But the long implementation period means that workers wont benefit from the safer limit until after much of the renovation wave has been completed. Thats why its imperative that member states dont wait until the end of the implementation period and put the lower limit into effect as soon as possible.5
General Secretary of the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers Tom Deleu concurred with Stahl saying:
The agreement achieved in the trialogue negotiations is an important step to protect construction workers from asbestos. We now call on the European institutions to adopt the compromise as it stands. This will be the only way to ensure that real steps are taken to protect workers and to reduce the prospect of an asbestos pandemic caused by the Renovation Wave. It is time to invest in prevention measures, in training for construction workers and enforcement measures. This means proper and frequent inspections and dissuasive sanctions.
Once Parliament and Council formally adopt the rules, they will be published in the EU Official Journal and enter into force 20 days later.
July 4, 2023
1 European Council Press Release. Asbestos: Council and Parliament strike deal on new rules protecting workers. June 27, 2023.
2 European Commission Press Release. Better protection of workers from asbestos: Commission welcomes political agreement to revise EU rules. June 27, 2023.
3 More modern and sensitive technology to detect asbestos fibres. June 27, 2023.
4 EU lawmakers agree to cut asbestos limits at work ten times. June 28, 2023.
5 ETUC Press Release. EU agrees better protection of workers against asbestos. June 28, 2023.