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EU Council of Ministers adopts measures to protect workers against exposure to dangerous chemicals

Worker safety to be strengthened once new EC Directive adopted by all member states

Handling hazardous chemicals in the workplace

24 February 2014

The EU Council of Ministers has adopted measures designed to better protect workers from the risks linked to being exposed to dangerous chemicals in the workplace.

Specialist industrial disease partner Daniel Easton welcomes the announcement.  He said:

“Health and safety laws, though much maligned, are there for a reason – to protect workers from harm.  I welcome the announcement by the European Commission that a more transparent labelling system for hazardous chemical products will be introduced and hope that the UK government brings forward regulations to bring this into force in the UK as quickly as possible.”

The new Directive, which has been the subject of a wide consultation with trade unions and employer representatives, will amend five existing EU health and safety Directives on the protection of workers from exposure to harmful chemicals to bring them into line with the latest rules on classification, labelling and packaging of chemicals (Regulation (EC) 1272/2008).

Member States have until 1 June 2015 to implement the new Directive in their national legislation.

Occupational exposure to chemicals is estimated by Cancer Research UK to be responsible for 2% of cancer deaths in the UK.  The handling and use of certain industrial chemicals such as arsenic, benzene, benzidine and admium dyes, beryllium and related chemicals, chromium pigments, and various organic solvents is already heavily regulated, and in the UK the Health and Safety Executive has produced guidelines on the safe use of these chemicals in the workplace.

The European Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion László Andor said:

"These modifications further strengthen the protection of workers against risks related to the use of dangerous chemicals at work, aligning the EU legislation to highest international standards and ensuring full consistency of health and safety law."

 "The alignment of worker protection requirements with the new labelling system will allow both employers and workers to understand the risks involved in the use of dangerous chemicals so that health and safety is not jeopardized in the workplace".

UK workers working in particular sectors are more likely to be exposed to dangerous chemicals, including in glass, metal and pesticide production, in the insulation and textiles industry, in the petroleum industry, aerospace and metal industries and in paint manufacturing. Workers in service industries such as health care and education, and people working in agriculture can also be exposed to dangerous products, including asbestos.

The manufacturers and suppliers of chemical substances and mixtures will now have to provide harmonised labelling information on hazard classification, alerting the user to the presence of hazardous chemicals, the need to avoid exposure and the associated risks.

Employers use this information when carrying out workplace risk assessments. This allows employers to put in place appropriate risk management measures to protect workers' health and safety, such as process enclosure, ventilation systems and the use of personal protective equipment.

The five Occupational Safety and Health Directives amended by the new Directive (92/58/EEC, 92/85/EEC, 94/33/EC, 98/24/EC and 2004/37/EC) all currently refer to existing EU chemical classification and labelling legislation that will be repealed on 1 June 2015 in accordance with Regulation (EC) 1272/2008.

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