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Improved protection against cancer for workers

22 September 2020
by eub2 -- last modified 22 September 2020

To improve workers' protection against cancer, the European Commission proposed on 22 September to further limit their exposure to cancer-causing chemicals.


How are workers currently protected against cancer-causing chemicals under EU legislation?

Three main EU Directives come into play: the over-arching Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Framework Directive lays out the main principles of workers' safety and health at work, including their protection from cancer-causing chemicals. The Chemical Agents Directive (CAD) and the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive (CMD) deal specifically with chemical risks.

The OSH Framework Directive prescribes that safety and health risks must be eliminated, or, if total elimination is not possible, reduced to a minimum. Under the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive, employers must identify and assess the risks to workers and prevent exposure to carcinogens and mutagens if risks occur. Whenever possible, the process or chemical must be replaced by a non- or less-hazardous one. If this is impossible, cancer-causing chemicals must be manufactured and used in a closed system to prevent workers' exposure. If this is not possible either, workers' exposure must be reduced to as low a level as is technically possible.

The Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive sets a number of general provisions to prevent or reduce exposure for all carcinogens and mutagens falling under its scope. In addition, it aims to set occupational exposure limit values (OELs) for all those carcinogens or mutagens for which this is possible. These limit values are essential means to protect workers from the exposure to cancer-causing chemicals at work. Existing limit values are revised whenever this becomes necessary in the light of more recent scientific data. For this reason, the Commission has supported a continuous process of updating the Directive to keep abreast with the new scientific and technical developments, taking account of social partners' and EU Member States' views.

What changes does the Commission propose to the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive?

The Commission proposes changes to limit exposure to the following three substances:

  • Acrylonitrile (new limit)
  • Nickel compounds (new limit)
  • Benzene (limit revised downwards)

For benzene, an EU-wide occupational exposure limit is already set in the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive. However, the most recent scientific and technical evidence indicates that this existing EU limit value should be revised downward.

The limit values proposed by the Commission in this initiative are based on the consultation of the Risk Assessment Committee (scientific committee) of the European Chemicals Agency and the tripartite Advisory Committee on Safety and Health at Work (ACSH – in which employers, workers and Member States are represented), as well as on the two-phase consultation of the Social Partners.

Table 1. Estimated exposed workers, sectors concerned and health effects for the three carcinogens under consideration


Estimated exposed workforce (number of workers)

Examples of sectors concerned

Health effects caused


10,000 – 33,000

- Industrial manufacturing

- Manufacture of textiles, leather and fur

- manufacture of chemicals (including petroleum products)

- manufacture of rubber products, manufacture of plastics products

- manufacture of computer, electronic and optical products, electrical equipment

- building and construction work

- Brain, stomach, tongue, intestines and mammary gland cancer

- Nasal irritation

Nickel compounds


- oil refineries

- pigments, frits, catalysts, glass, metals and alloys

- metal surface treatment

- batteries

- materials recovery

- welding

- Lung and nasal cancer

- Pulmonary morbidity and miscarriage



- Petroleum industry,

- coking plants

- petrochemical industry

- maintenance and repair of motor vehicles

- foundries

- Leukaemia

- Leukocytopenia, lymphocytopenia, neutrocytopenia and thrombocytopenia

Total workforce: ~1,121,500

Based on external study COWI (2019) in the Commission's impact assessment accompanying this proposal.

What are the benefits of the proposal for workers?

This initiative aims first and foremost to ensure workers' right to a high level of protection of their health and safety at work. Limiting exposure to acrylonitrile, nickel compounds and benzene will reduce work-related cases of cancer and other serious illnesses and related healthcare costs, as well as intangible costs such as a reduced quality of life.  

What benefits will the proposal bring for business?

For businesses, the proposal will reduce costs caused by work-related ill-health and cancer in terms of absences, lost expertise, insurance payments and productivity losses.

This initiative will also contribute towards a better level playing field for economic operators by adopting minimum requirements at the European level. The existence of limit values also provides clarity and certainty regarding the maximum level of exposure allowed.

The disparities between the existing national limit values for the three substances are high, which leads to different level of protection of EU workers. For instance, national limits for acrylonitrile range from 0.5 mg/m³ to 7 mg/m³, meaning that some EU countries have set limit values fourteen times lower than others. In addition to that, seven EU countries have no limit values yet to restrict workers' exposure to this substance. Such differences cause complications for businesses operating in different EU countries and bring confusion to cross-border companies that have to deal with highly diverging limit values.

What benefits will the proposal bring for EU Member States?

Member States will avoid productivity losses, reduce the costs for social security systems, and avoid tax revenue losses due to morbidity and mortality.

Setting EU-wide exposure limits will not completely eliminate the differences between EU Member States. Indeed, they retain the possibility to adopt lower limits. However, it will limit (acrylonitrile and nickel compounds) or further limit (benzene) the scope for divergences and enhance certainty that there is a core definition or enforceable exposure limit for all concerned cancer-causing chemicals.

EU-wide occupational exposure limits also eliminate the need for Member States to conduct their own scientific analysis and brings clarity regarding the acceptable levels of exposure, facilitating the work of inspectors by providing a helpful tool for compliance checks. Indeed, the process of establishing limit values is very complex and requires a high level of scientific expertise. It should support Member States in making substantial savings on administrative costs.

Source: European Commission

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