On 13 February 2023, the European Commission proposed a new approach to protect workers. The EU-Commission wants to make workplaces healthier and safer by lowering the limits for lead and diisocyanates.
Nicolas Schmit, Commissioner for Jobs and Social Rights pointed out that the proposal is a key commitment under the European Pillar of Social Rights. Specifically, the EU-Commission wants to amend both Directive 2004/37/EC on the protection of workers from risks related to exposure to carcinogens, mutagens or reprotoxic substances at work and Directive 98/24/EC on the protection of the health and safety of workers from the risks related to chemical agents at work. Lead can cause impaired reproductive function in affected workers or inhibit foetal development in pregnant women. Diisocyanates can cause asthma and respiratory diseases. The EU-Commission wants to prevent this with lower exposure limits.
Reducing the exposure limit value for lead
There are still workplaces that can lead to lead exposure, which is hazardous to health. This is primarily the case in metalworking but lead exposure can also occur during cleaning and maintenance work. According to the EU-Commission, around 100,000 workers are currently exposed to lead at work. EU limits for such exposure have been in place since 1982; to bring them in line with research, the EU-Commission is now proposing the following improvement: to further reduce the occupational exposure limit from 0.15 milligrams per cubic metre (0,15 mg/m3) to 0.03 mg/m3, and to reduce the biological limit from 70 micrograms per 100 millilitres of blood (70µg/100 ml) to 15 µg/100 ml. Although it is predominantly men who are exposed to lead, the EU-Commission stresses the need for better protection of women of childbearing age due to potential impairment of foetal development.
Introduction of exposure limits for diisocyanates
Diisocyanates are used as chemical building blocks in a wide range of sectors across the Union, notably in foams, sealants and coatings. According to the EU-Commission, about 4.2 million workers in the EU are currently exposed to diisocyanates. As there is no limit at EU level so far, the EU-Commission now proposes the following limits concerning the nitrogen, oxygen and carbon groups: a limit for occupational exposure of 6µg NCO/m3 (daily average), and a limit for short-term exposure of 12 µg NCO/m3. In addition to these limits, the EU-Commission wishes to draw the attention of employers and workers to the need for protective measures by indicating possible routes of exposure other than inhalation, in particular via the skin.
AK demands risk-based limits
From the point of view of workers, it is basically to be welcomed that limits are set or lowered. AK has already advocated risk-based limits in previous legal acts. Unfortunately, the EU-Commission has not chosen this approach for this legal act either. The aim of the concept of risk-based limits is to create an equally low cancer risk for all workers who are exposed to carcinogenic substances at work. In addition, risk-based limits allow for an up-to-date risk assessment.
With regard to the biological limit for lead, a lower limit with a uniformly high level of protection for men and women should be set in order to prevent discrimination against women in the labour market. In addition, it is necessary to include a qualitative statement in the Directive that lead exposure of women of childbearing age must be avoided or minimised, as the biological limit does not sufficiently protect reproductive capacity.
AK EUROPA: Commission presents strategic framework on health and safety at work
AK EUROPA Position Paper: Amendment of the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive, 4th batch
EU-Commission: Commission acts to improve protection of workers with new exposure limits for lead and diisocyanates