European Commission says still no action on worker health
This year the European Trade Union Institute published a paper on work-related cancers in the EU. It showed that 102,500 deaths take place each year because of exposure to carcinogens in the workplace, twenty times the number caused by workplace injuries. That is a massive amount.
Here in the UK the HSE puts the figure at around 13,500 cases of cancer which lead to at least 8,000 deaths, although the TUC has always disputed that, believing that the true rate is at least 15,000. However, whatever figures you use, there is a huge problem.
The cause of these deaths is that workers are being exposed to cancer-causing agents in the workplace. These can range from silica to diesel exhaust, from benzene to wood dust. These deaths could be avoided if employers simply ensured that workers were not exposed and that is simply not happening.
The level of deaths that we are seeing now reflects past exposure and we are often told that the problem is a historical one. That is nonsense. Exposure to many of the common carcinogens such as diesel exhaust and shift working is increasing, and of course exposure to silica is still a huge problem in construction, especially given the high levels of refurbishment that are taking place across Europe. The biggest killer is, by far, asbestos, and tens of millions of tonnes of this remain in place in workplaces across Europe.
Because of the high level of exposure there is a clear need for new regulation on carcinogens. Exposure limits vary from country to country and the current regulations on carcinogens are woefully out of date. The main regulation was agreed in 2004 and does not even cover workplace exposure to tobacco smoke. Since it was introduced, several attempts have been made to update it, with governments, unions and employers all agreeing the need for stronger and more comprehensive limit values in both 2004 and 2007. Since then the European Commission has been promising to sort it out.
So this week the European Commission published their work programme for the coming year. My colleague Owen Tudor has published a blog on the overall programme, but on carcinogens, it will be of no surprise to anyone that there is no plan for any action on this. Instead they are simply saying that their “review of the existing occupational health and safety legislation, including on carcinogens and mutagens, will improve the efficiency and effectiveness of an EU framework for protecting workers.” The nearest we get to anything concrete on health and safety is a statement that they will conclude the complex preparatory work already under way to protect Europeans from the dangers of endocrine disruptors and follow up on it.”
Of course it is not just workplace carcinogens where we have problems. Across Europe there are massive levels of stress related illnesses and musculoskeletal disorders. For years the Commission have been promising new regulations on musculoskeletal disorders but they dropped the proposal last year. On stress, a recent evaluation of directives commented that that there was a clear gap here that the Commission should review.
So what do the 13 pages of the Commission work programme say on health and safety. Well apart from the mention of the continuation of the work on the endocrine disrupters there is just one mention, but that is not about new regulation it is just saying that they want to check that existing rules are “workable and will be enforced”. That is admirable but there is a real concern that given the current political situation in Europe and review of current regulation will simply be an excuse to deregulate or, in European-speak, “simplify”. It is also nothing new as the review of health and safety regulation is something that is already on-going.
So in a nutshell what we have is an entire work programme that does not offer a single new proposal on the area of workplace health. Instead it confirms the dropping of some areas and simply says that they will be continuing what they are already doing. Yet, without a hint of irony, they call their work programme “No time for business as usual”.