On 28 September 2022, the EU Commission presented a new concept for an asbestos-free Europe. Consisting both of a Communication and a Proposal for amending the relevant Directive, the package of measures shall ensure the comprehensive improvement of the protection of all people against asbestos. However, the Commission’s proposals fall significantly short of the requests made by trade unions and the EU Parliament.
Asbestos continues to be a significant health risk in the EU. Even though the use of the highly carcinogenic substance has been banned in all Member States since 2005, many older buildings were constructed with asbestos-containing materials. If, within the process of renovating, these building materials are being disturbed, dangerous asbestos fibres may be released, which, if inhaled, increases the risk of developing lung cancer or mesothelioma. As pointed out by the European Trade Union Confederation, ca 100,000 people in Europe are dying each year of work-related cancer, whereby more than half of these deaths are linked to cancers caused by asbestos. Hence, asbestos represents an disproportional high health risk in particular in connection with working in the building industry, but miners, firefighters and waste collectors are also strongly affected occupational groups.
In the context of the green transition, many buildings in the Member States shall be renovated to make them energy-efficient or CO2-neutral over the coming years. Hence, particularly within the scope of these renovations, containing the health risks caused by asbestos is playing an important role.
Cornerstones of the concept for an asbestos-free future
To ensure an asbestos-free Europe for current and future generations, the EU Commission provides for measures in a wide range of areas. Hence, people affected by asbestos-related diseases shall be supported by including additional asbestos-related as occupational diseases. Parallel to this, Member States will be asked to develop national strategies for the removal of asbestos, whereby identifying and reporting asbestos in buildings shall be regulated by a legislative proposal, planned by the EU Commission for 2023. To ensure the safe disposal of asbestos, the Commission plans a study on new waste management practices and treatment technologies. Funding will be available through the Recovery and Resilience Facility (RFF), the European Social Fund Plus and the European Regional Development Fund.
The measure with the greatest impact on workers is the proposal to amend the Asbestos at Work Directive. Apart from campaigns, which contribute to raising awareness of companies, building owners, workers and public administration, the exposure limit of asbestos at work shall be reduced from currently 0.1 to 0.01 fibers/cm³.
EU Parliament, AK and trade unions: limit far too high
From AK’s point of view, the measures presented by the EU Commission for protection from asbestos are to be welcomed. Revising the current regulation is of particular importance for the estimated 4.1 to 7.3 million European workers, who are currently exposed to asbestos and represents an important step towards better health protection. However, it has to be criticised that the limit was only reduced to 0.01 and not to 0,001 fibers/cm³, as requested by AK, trade unions and the Advisory Committee for Safety and Health at Work (ACSH). The EU Commission’s concept unfortunately also did not take up the request to improve the quality of measuring methods. MEPs of all groups in the European Parliament Committee on Employment and Social Affairs (EMPL), where an exchange on the issue took place with Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights Nicolas Schmit on 25 September 2022, were disappointed with the little ambitious Commission proposal. Already in a Resolution from 2021, the EU Parliament had supported the 10-times lower limit of asbestos.