• International Workplace
  • 14 February 2017

New health and safety initiative tackles work-related cancer

A new initiative from the European Commission will aim to better protect workers against work-related cancer, to help businesses, in particular SMEs and micro-enterprises, in their efforts to comply with the existing legislative framework, and to put a bigger focus on results and less on paperwork.

Presenting the initiative in January, Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, Marianne Thyssen said:

“Today we present a clear action plan for sound occupational safety and health at the workplace in the 21st century with rules that are clear, up-to-date and effectively applied on the ground. We also deliver on our commitment to fight work-related cancer, by addressing exposure to seven more cancer-causing chemicals which will improve protection of some four million workers in Europe. We join forces with Member States and stakeholders to create a healthy and safe workplace for all."

Cancer is a specific priority of the Commission, as the first cause of work-related deaths in the EU. On 13 May 2016 it proposed measures to reduce exposure of European workers to 13 cancer-causing chemicals, by proposing changes to the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive (2004/37/EC). The Commission is now following up on its political commitment, committing to undertake the following actions:

  • Set exposure limits or other measures for another seven cancer-causing chemicals. This proposal will not only benefit workers' health, but also sets a clear objective for employers and enforcement authorities to avoid exposure.
  • Help businesses, notably small and micro enterprises, in their efforts to comply with health and safety rules. In particular, evidence shows that one in three micro enterprises does not assess workplace risks. The Commission has therefore published a guidance paper for employers with practical tips aimed at facilitating their risk assessment and at making it more effective.
  • The Commission will work with Member States and social partners to remove or update outdated rules within the next two years. The aim is to simplify and reduce administrative burden, while maintaining workers' protection.

The review of the EU OSH legislation and the changes to the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive fit within the Commission's ongoing work on establishing a European Pillar of Social Rights, which aims to adapt EU legislation to changing work patterns and society. The consultations and debates on the Pillar have confirmed the importance of occupational health and safety at work as a cornerstone of the EU acquis and put an emphasis on prevention and enforcement. The new initiative also follows up on broad evaluation of the existing ‘acquis’, as part of the Regulatory Fitness and Performance Program (REFIT) exercise, which aims at making EU legislation simpler, more relevant and effective.

A new campaign has also been launched by IOSH, with a view to getting carcinogenic exposure issues more widely understood and help businesses take action. IOSH states:

“Cancer caused by what people do at work is nothing new. One of the first official cases of an occupational cancer was identified in the 18th century.

“Asbestos is the best-known carcinogen – and the biggest killer. Today, asbestos claims well over 100,000 lives a year worldwide. It’s estimated that ten million people across the world will have died as a result of asbestos exposure before it’s been fully controlled. But there are many other carcinogenic exposures that cause cancer and claim lives.

“Across the EU, one in five workers faces an occupational cancer risk. Across the world, the number of people dying from work-caused cancer far outstrips those dying because of work accidents. It’s estimated that at least 666,000 people die worldwide every year.”

IOSH’s No Time to Lose campaign is working to:

  • raise awareness of a significant health issues facing workers in the UK and internationally;
  • suggest some solutions on a UK scale to tackle the problem – a national model that can be transposed internationally; and
  • offer free practical, original materials to businesses to help them deliver effective prevention programmes.