According to the European Survey on Working Conditions, the proportion of workers who report being exposed to chemicals for at least one-quarter of their working time has not changed since 2000, remaining steady at about 17 percent.

EU-OSHA Seeks Better Management of Dangerous Substances

The ESENER-2 survey found 38 percent of EU companies reporting that chemical or biological substances in the form of liquids, fumes, or dust are present in their workplaces.

The 2018-2019 Healthy Workplaces Campaign1 by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, or EU-OSHA, and its partners is focused on managing dangerous substances in the workplace. EU-OSHA and numerous companies marked this year's European Week for Safety and Health at Work (Oct. 22-26) with events to raise awareness of the topic and to encourage businesses to embrace active safety management of dangerous substances.

According to the agency, dangerous substances are present in nearly all EU workplaces, with 38 percent of EU companies reporting that chemical or biological substances in the form of liquids, fumes, or dust are present in their workplaces, according to EU-OSHA's second European Survey of Enterprises on New and Emerging Risks (known as the ESENER-2 survey).

"Our ESENER survey shows that dangerous substances are present in all sectors, for example in traditional industries such as construction and manufacturing, with over 50 percent of companies in the EU affected, and agriculture, with 62 percent of EU enterprises affected," said Dr. Christa Sedlatschek, EU-OSHA's director. "We aim to benefit workers, management, and the environment by conducting research, bringing together a wealth of practical help, and raising awareness of the importance of actively managing dangerous substances."

EU-OSHA defines a dangerous substance as "any solid, liquid or gas that has the potential to cause damage to the safety or health of workers." Exposure routes are inhalation, skin penetration, or ingestion. Occupational exposures to dangerous substances are linked to both acute and long-term health issues, including:

  • respiratory diseases (such as asthma and silicosis)
  • harm to inner organs, including the brain and the nervous system
  • skin irritation and diseases
  • occupational cancers (such as leukemia, lung cancer, and mesothelioma)

Dangerous substances in the workplace—wherever they are located, not just in the EU—also may raise the risk of fires and explosions.

Dangerous Substances Most Common in EU Agriculture, Manufacturing, Construction
The ESENER-2 survey showed that dangerous substances are most prevalent in sectors such as agriculture, manufacturing, and construction. While these exposures cause a substantial proportion of occupational diseases, there is a general lack of awareness of the nature and abundance of dangerous substances at work and the risks they pose, and there has been little or no progress in reducing workers' exposure in recent years, EU-OSHA has reported. According to the European Survey on Working Conditions, the proportion of workers who report being exposed to chemicals for at least one-quarter of their working time has not changed since 2000, remaining steady at about 17 percent.

Workers' exposure to dangerous substances must be eliminated, or at least effectively managed, to ensure the safety and health of workers and the economic success of businesses and society. And the agency points out that there is a "clear business case for investing in occupational safety and health"—enterprises committed to creating a prevention culture through strong leadership and providing the appropriate resources reap the rewards in the long run, it says.

Workplace exposures to carcinogens are estimated to cost 2.4 billion euros on the continent annually. Compensation claims from workers whose health has been adversely affected by exposure to dangerous substances at work can also run into hundreds of thousands of euros per claim.

By investing in occupational safety and health, those costs are avoided and businesses enjoy higher levels of productivity and employee engagement, reduced absences and illnesses, and lower turnover. As a result, they are more competitive and ultimately more successful.

Partners Share Best Practices, PPE Information
This European Week activities included a best practices seminar in Croatia and best practice site visits to companies in Finland; Romania hosted events promoting workplace safety and health excellent; chemical safety seminars were presented in Slovenia, Hungary, Poland, Latvia, Italy, and Bulgaria. It was heavily promoted on social media across Europe. The European Firefighters Unions Alliance organized a seminar on firefighters' work environment and hazardous substances.

The European Safety Federation, an official campaign partner, conducted a workshop on the new PPE Regulation (EU) 2016/425 that took effect in April 2018. Issued by the European Commission, the regulation2 covers the design, manufacture, and marketing of personal protective equipment.

The new PPE regulation is a significant change from what preceded it. It lays out conformity assessment procedures for PPE, basing them on the risk category to which the products are assigned. Conformity assessments procedures for the categories are:

Category I: internal production control

Category II: EU-type examination followed by conformity to type based on internal production control

Category III: EU-type examination, followed by either conformity to type based on internal production control plus supervised product checks at random intervals, or conformity to type based on quality assurance of the production process.

The risk categories are:

Category I:

  • superficial mechanical injury
  • contact with cleaning materials of weak action or prolonged contact with water
  • contact with hot surfaces not exceeding 50 degrees C
  • damage to the eyes due to exposure to sunlight (other than during observation of the sun)
  • atmospheric conditions that are not of an extreme nature

Category II:

Category II includes risks other than those listed in Categories I and III.

Category III:

Category III includes exclusively the risks that may cause very serious consequences, such as death or irreversible damage to health relating to:

  • substances and mixtures which are hazardous to health
  • atmospheres with oxygen deficiency
  • harmful biological agents
  • ionizing radiation
  • high-temperature environments the effects of which are comparable to those of an air temperature of at least 100 degrees C
  • low-temperature environments the effects of which are comparable to those of an air temperature of -50 degrees C or less
  • falling from a height
  • electric shock and live work
  • drowning
  • cuts by hand-held chainsaws
  • high-pressure jets
  • bullet wounds or knife stabs
  • harmful noise

References
1. https://healthy-workplaces.eu/en
2. https://eur-lex.europa.eu/legal-content/EN/TXT/HTML/?uri=CELEX:32016R0425&from=EN

This article originally appeared in the December 2018 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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