BOHS, the Chartered Society for Worker Health Protection, has welcomed recent proposals unveiled by the European Commission to amend and update the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive, describing the proposals “as good news for worker health protection in Europe”.

The changes to the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive can be summarised as follows:

  • Exposure to stone dust, or respirable crystalline silica (RCS), will be included in the Directive, along with a corresponding revised limit value.
  • Limit values will be established for a further 10 additional carcinogens, namely 1,2-epoxypropane, 1,3-butadiene, 2-nitropropane, acrylamide, certain chromium (VI) compounds, ethylene oxide, o-toluidine, certain refractory ceramic fibres, bromoethylene and hydrazine.The existing limit values for hardwood dusts and vinyl chloride monomer will be revised in the light of available scientific data.

The proposals have been strongly welcomed by BOHS, with the Society supporting the European Commission’s own analysis of the current Directive as “outdated” and in need of modernisation.

Evaluating the implications of the proposals, the Chartered Society noted that occupational exposure limits do indeed vary between European member states.

In the case of RCS, the European Commission’s new suggested limit of 0.1 milligram per cubic metres will simply bring other European member states, such as Austria and Poland, in line with the UK’s permissible exposure limit for silica dust, which is already at 0.1 milligrams per cubic metre.

For each of the other 12 substances however, the Society noted that the Commission’s proposals will bring in occupational exposure limits which are below the UK’s current limits. In the case of bromoethylene, the proposals will set a limit for the first time in the UK.

Commenting on the changes, Tracey Boyle, President of BOHS, said, “These proposed changes plainly illustrate the importance of controlling exposure to carcinogens and mutagens. In terms of Britain’s Control of Substances Hazardous to Health (COSHH) regime, there is already a legal duty to reduce exposures to as low a level as reasonably practicable and certainly it would not be wise to aim to merely meet the occupational exposure limits for carcinogens, mutagens and sensitisers. For companies that are applying good practice in occupational hygiene, therefore, these proposals, if passed, will not represent the need for significant changes.”

The Society said the proposals will also ensure a minimum level of protection for European workers and a more level playing field for all European companies, both of which should be greatly welcomed.

In examining the issue of carcinogens, BOHS took the opportunity to look at some key statistics in relation to occupational cancer as follows:

  • In the UK, at least 8,000 deaths – around 60% of the total occupational mortality burden of 13,000 – are caused each year by cancer due to past exposures at work.
  • In Europe, an estimated 102,000 deaths, or 53%, are attributed each year to occupational cancer.
  • In Europe and Britain, cancer is the top cause of work-related deaths, with research showing that millions of workers across Europe are being exposed, on a daily basis, to the carcinogens identified in the planned European Commission reforms.
  • In Britain, the construction sector has the largest proportion (over 40%) of cancer deaths and registrations, with over 5,500 construction workers developing cancer and 3,500 former construction workers dying of the disease each year, as a result of occupational exposures.

In view of the final point above, the Society noted, and welcomed, the particular mention made of the construction sector by the European Commission in announcing the suggested amendments.

Tracey Boyle said “Our Breathe Freely initiative to prevent occupational lung disease in the construction sector has highlighted the crucial role of the construction industry in the fight to eliminate occupational cancer. Breathe Freely aims to raise awareness of the fact that the majority of these cases of cancer in the construction sector are caused by breathing in carcinogenic substances, such as asbestos and silica, but beyond awareness raising, our ultimate goal is real change on the ground.”

In support of this goal, Breathe Freely offers, free of charge, a wide range of practical tools and guidance, including the recently launched construction manager’s toolkit and a new, more detailed version of the Health in Industry (HI) Management Standard.

In conclusion, Tracey Boyle said “The European Commission’s new plans to update and revise the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive send an important signal to European governments, employers and workers that occupational cancer can and must be tackled. This is good news for worker health protection in Europe. Cancer is a complex disease and some causal factors are difficult to identify, but we have, at our disposal, a wide range of tried and tested occupational hygiene techniques to prevent the exposures which cause work-related cancer, and it is imperative that these should be employed across Europe.”