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Combating dangerous substances at work - European Agency for Safety and Health at Work

14 May 2003, 18:08 CET


· One fifth of EU employees - 32 million people - are exposed to carcinogenic agents;
· 22% of workers inhale fumes and vapours for at least a quarter of their working time;
· Two-thirds of the 30,000 most commonly used chemicals in the EU have not been subjected to full and systematic toxicological tests;
· For substances with known toxicological risks, as few as 12% of firms comply with risk prevention regulations.

The first pan-European campaign to reduce the risks of chemicals, biological agents and other dangerous substances at work - hazards that affect around a quarter of the EU's 150 million employees - was launched by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work on Tuesday 13 May 2003 at the European Parliament in Strasbourg. Cancers, asthma and neuro-psychiatric problems are just some of the illnesses that can be caused by the 100,000 chemicals marketed in the EU, as well as biological agents.

According to research, 21% of EU employees are exposed to known or suspected carcinogens, such as benzene (in fuel) and crystalline silica (construction materials), while 22% of workers inhale fumes and vapours for at a least a quarter of their working time, including organic solvents, wood dust and welding fumes. In addition, 16% of employees handle or come into contact with dyes, pesticides, Chromium VI (via wet cement) and other dangerous substances for similar periods, either directly or through contaminated surfaces and production processes. Sectors most at risk range from construction and agriculture to printing, cleaning, health care and automotive mechanics.

These risks are heightened by inadequate regulatory compliance and information. One study, for instance, found that only 12% of firms were aware of their regulatory duties. Moreover, a separate study revealed that 20% of Safety Data Sheets supplied by manufacturers of hazardous substances contained errors

The health impacts are significant. Research has shown that 4% of all cancers, for example, are work-related and that 10% of employees contract eczema. In addition, studies suggest that one third of all cases of adult-onset asthma are caused by workplace exposures. Occupational skin diseases alone, which often force employees to change jobs, including 10% of hairdressers, are calculated to cost the EU EUR 600 million a year. Occupational asthma is estimated to cost the EU EUR 400-800 million.

The human and financial costs, however, are likely to be much larger. Existing data is based on studies of substances with known toxicities. However, two-thirds of the 30,000 most commonly used chemicals in the EU - around 20,000 substances - have not been subjected to systematic toxicological tests and assessments. Only new chemicals notified since 1981 must undergo these tests, although the EU is developing a strategy to systematically assess so-called 'existing' chemicals.

"Dangerous substances contribute significantly to the 350 million days lost through occupational ill health in the EU and to the seven million people suffering from occupational illnesses," says Anna Diamantopoulou, European Commissioner for Employment and Social Affairs. "The Agency's campaign, together with EU initiatives, including our recent White Paper on a Strategy for a Future Chemicals Policy, are important steps in dealing with this severe, but often hidden, problem."

Pat Cox, President of the European Parliament comments: "The use of dangerous substances in the workplace is commonplace for millions of EU workers. It is important that campaigns such as these convey the message to both workers and citizens that dangerous substances need to be handled with care both in the workplace and at home. This campaign is not only important in raising awareness but provides us with advice and good practice on how to eliminate or minimise these risks. The important role of the media in assisting in this task cannot be underestimated."

"I am very pleased to announce that the European Week for Safety and Health at Work has developed into the largest safety and health event in our region, including not only the 15 EU-Member States but also all Candidate Countries and all EFTA countries," says Hans-Horst Konkolewsky, Director of the Agency. "Dangerous substances need to handled with care - this is the key message of our 2003 campaign. In many cases safe substitutes for dangerous substances do exist, for instance to replace organic solvents. If this is not possible, exposure can be eliminated or reduced through efficient control measures. We hope to communicate these messages along with a lot of good practice information to workplaces all across Europe where dangerous substances are handled."

To support this drive, the Agency's campaign, which will form the heart of its European Week on Safety and Health at Work in October, will provide a range of information about the risks and solutions through various media. These will include information packs in all official EU languages, posters, leaflets and a multilingual website at http://osha.eu.int/ew2003/. The Agency, which acts as a European portal for information on occupational safety and health, will also announce at the Week's closing event in November the winners of its European Good Practice awards for organisations that have most successfully tackled the problem of dangerous substances via preventive measures, risk awareness, substitution and other techniques. During October 2003, events will be organised across Europe to bring the campaign to life in all organisations, large and small, public and private.

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