Stricter asbestos exposure limits are needed to protect workers

Millions of construction workers risk getting cancer from asbestos exposure during the EU-wide building renovation wave. To better protect them, organised civil society has called for stricter exposure limits than the European Commission proposes in its amended Asbestos at Work Directive.

This call was made at the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) public hearing “Building an asbestos free Europe for workers”, held on 31 October in Brussels to get opinions from EU institutions, civil society and academia on the Commission’s proposals.

The amended Directive includes lowering the occupational exposure limit from 0.1 fibres per cubic centimetre (f/cm³) to 0.01 f/cm³.

Tony Musu, European Trade Union Institute senior researcher, said that the Institute would propose to further lower the limit to 0.001 f/cm³, as this would save more lives.

Because of the lag between asbestos exposure and its symptoms, the current number of workers who die in the EU each year, following asbestos exposure 20 to 50 years ago, will not decline in the near future, said Jukka Takala, Adjunct Professor at the faculty of social sciences at Tampere University.

Balance worker and employer needs

Maxime Cerutti, director for social affairs at Business Europe said that the lowered occupational exposure limit needed to be phased in at a realistic pace. Any proposal should balance worker protection with the needs of employers.

We need time. It’s a pity the European Commission didn’t take up the proposal for a 4-to-5 year transition period to allow employers and companies to adapt, he said.

Enrico Gibellieri, co-rapporteur of the EESC opinion Working with asbestos in energy renovation said that better medical support for workers and compensation for victims is needed.

Considering the social cost of treating those exposed to asbestos, we should adopt all these measures without delay, said Kathi Apostolidis, scientific committee chair at the European Cancer Patients Coalition.

Call for international cooperation

EESC study group President Laurentiu Plosceanu said: I’m confident that we shall have a proper and balanced document with reasonable and practical measures to be implemented, to send to the Commission.

Ellen Nygren, rapporteur of the EESC opinion Protection from exposure to asbestos at work, said it was not enough for the EU to protect workers within its borders, and that cooperation with the International Labour Organisation should be strengthened.

In general terms we want to support the Commission’s proposal. We need to further reduce the occupational exposure limit, follow international standards and ensure that renovation and demolition work only happens once buildings have been screened for materials containing asbestos, she said.