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Only asbestos-free work is safe work


26 Apr 2023


Health & Consumers

The European Parliament is ready to negotiate for asbestos-free work. Today, its employment committee agreed on a strong mandate for talks with EU member states on the revised European law on the protection of workers from asbestos. This mandate is expected to be confirmed at the plenary in May. The S&D Group firmly believes that no time should be wasted, and no effort spared, to limit workers’ exposure to this highly dangerous substance – the main cause of work-related cancers in Europe*. It is time to deliver on our commitment to the vision of no work-related deaths.

In September 2022, the European Commission proposed the revision of the 2009 directive designed to protect workers from asbestos-related risks. Its proposal fell short of our expectations. We have been calling for a rigorous revision of the asbestos legislation to ensure proper protection against work-related cancers. This requires much stricter exposure limits, set at 1000 fibres per m3, as we urged in the Parliament’s resolution adopted in October 2021. The limit proposed by the Commission – and so far accepted by EU member states – is ten times higher, so their ambition is ten times lower.

Marianne Vind MEP, S&D negotiator on the EU legislation on workers’ protection from asbestos, said:

“There are no safe levels of exposure to asbestos. Today, in the Parliament, we reached a very good deal that can save thousands of lives in the future. This is an important step towards our goal of asbestos-free work, but the negotiations with EU member states will be tough. We will continue to do our best to eradicate this problem.

“First, we need a stricter occupational exposure limit. In addition to the obvious risks, this is crucial because exposure to asbestos will be a huge health-risk factor in the renovation wave, aiming to make buildings fit for a climate-neutral future by 2050. The EU is expected to renovate around 220 million buildings within 30 years.

“Furthermore, to be able to measure stricter exposure limits, EU member states need to put in place the appropriate methodology – electron microscopy. This should be mandatory, with an option of a four-year transition period.

“We are also calling for many other improvements, such as access to early diagnosis, treatment, rehabilitation and compensation for those workers who have already fallen ill from asbestos; mandatory screenings of buildings before sale, rent or any works; including secondary exposure in the legislation; and public asbestos registers.”

Agnes Jongerius MEP, S&D spokesperson for employment, said:

“While the Commission’s proposal from last September fell short of our expectations, there was a silver lining in its promises regarding a wider European strategy on protection against asbestos, stretching beyond the workplace. We have been repeatedly calling for a holistic European strategy on asbestos, and we expect these promises to be translated into concrete binding action without any further delay.

“Health and safety at work have always been our top priority. Strict European rules on asbestos are a vital part of these efforts, but we also need stronger global action against asbestos. Approximately 250,000 people across the world die each year due to asbestos exposure. Our ultimate goal is a global ban. Only asbestos-free work is safe work, and only an asbestos-free world is a safe world.”

*Note to editors:

While asbestos has been banned in the European Union since 2005, and even before that in many member states, many buildings built before still contain asbestos, and 80% of work-related cancers recognised in the Union are linked to this substance.

It is estimated that 4.1 to 7.3 million workers are exposed to asbestos. 97% of these workers are in the construction sector, including related occupations such as roofers, plumbers, carpenters and floor layers, and 2% are in the waste management industry.

According to the 2019 data, occupational exposure to asbestos claims around 88,000 lives a year, and this number is expected to rise in the late 2020s and 2030s.

An increased risk of cancer has been observed in people exposed to even very low levels of asbestos or by passive or second-hand exposure.

The cost of occupational cancer in the European Union is estimated to be between €270 and €610 billion per year, equalling 1.8% to 4.1% of GDP.