Toxic Substances Put One in Five EU Workers at Risk

STRASBOURG, France, May 16, 2003 (ENS) - Twenty percent of employees in European Union member states, some 32 million people, are exposed to carcinogenic agents at work, and even more inhale fumes and vapors for at least a quarter of their working time. To address these risks, the first pan-European campaign to raise awareness of dangerous substances in the workplace was launched on Tuesday at the European Parliament.

Campaign organizer, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, aims to educate companies about the risks and regulatory duties regarding employee exposure to chemicals, biological agents, and other dangerous substances at work.

The agency says that for substances with known toxicological risks, as few as 12 percent of firms that use them comply with risk prevention regulations. In addition, 20 percent of Safety Data Sheets supplied by manufacturers of hazardous substances contained errors.

The campaign will take place in the 15 current EU member states as well as the 10 future member states that will join the EU next April. It will culminate in the European Week for Safety and Health at Work in October 2003, whose motto is "Dangerous Substances - Handle with Care." Safety and health institutions, trade unions, company managers and employees will all take part.

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Hans-Horst Konkolewsky is director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (Photo courtesy European Parliament)
Agency Director Hans-Horst Konkolewsky says 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 [European Free Trade Association] countries."

Konkolewsky said that in many cases safe substitutes for dangerous substances exist, such as replacements for organic solvents. If this is not possible, exposure can be eliminated or reduced through efficient control measures, he said. "We hope to communicate these messages along with a lot of good practice information to workplaces all across Europe where dangerous substances are handled."

For the purposes of the campaign, a dangerous substance is defined as any liquid, gas or solid, chemical or biological, that poses a toxicological risk to employees' health, excluding radioactive, inflammable and explosive substances. These risks can occur through either direct or indirect contact with the toxic, for example through touching contaminated surfaces.

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Workers on this demolition job in Newcastle, England are exposed to dangerous concrete dust. (Photo courtesy FreeFoto)
Cancers, asthma and neuro-psychiatric problems are some of the illnesses that can be caused by the 100,000 chemicals and biological agents marketed in the European Union, according to the safety agency.

Two-thirds of the 30,000 most commonly used chemicals in the EU have not been subjected to full and systematic toxicological tests, the agency said. Only new chemicals notified since 1981 must undergo these tests, although the EU is developing a strategy to systematically assess chemicals that were in existence before then.

“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.”

Citing research that shows four percent of all cancers are work related and that 10 percent of employees contract eczema, the agency said one-fifth of EU employees are exposed to known or suspected carcinogens, such as benzene in fuel and crystalline silica in construction materials.

Twenty-two percent of workers inhale fumes and vapors for at a least a quarter of their working time, including organic solvents, wood dust and welding fumes, the agency says.

Sectors most at risk range from construction and agriculture to printing, cleaning, health care and automotive mechanics.

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Embalmers are exposed to hazardous chemicals (Photo courtesy MCC)
Dangers extend even to the funeral industry. A research team based in Essex, UK announced findings on Monday which show that glutaraldehyde, formaldehyde and its aqueous solution Formalin, used worldwide for embalming, pose greater problems to health and to the environment than is generally thought.

Workers exposed to formaldehyde, a colorless and invisible gas, face a significantly greater risk of cancers of the nose, pharynx and lung than average, and those working in some areas of hospitals, mortuaries and funeral services have as much as 30 percent greater risk of developing these cancers.

“The extraordinary thing is that nobody seems to be taking these risks very seriously,” said team leader Dr. Kit Barrow. “While there are health and safety regulations which apply where formaldehyde, glutaraldehyde or Formalin are used, even where they are properly enforced, they leave workers perilously close to the threshold of serious harm.”

President of the European Parliament Pat Cox said, “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."

During October 2003, events will be organized across Europe to bring the campaign to life in all organizations, large and small, public and private.

Information packs will be offered in all official EU languages, there will be posters, leaflets and a multilingual website at: http://osha.eu.int/ew2003/.

In November, at the closing event of the European Week for Safety and Health at Work, the agency will recognize the winners of its European Good Practice awards for organizations that have most successfully tackled the problem of dangerous substances through preventive measures, risk awareness, and substitution.