Commission proposes better workers’ protection against cancer-causing chemicals

Cancer is the first cause of work-related deaths in the EU, accounting for 53% of the total and therefore the single biggest health risk to workers in the European Union.

To improve protection for workers from cancer-causing chemicals, the Commission today proposes changes to the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive (2004/37/EC) to limit exposure to 13 cancer-causing chemicals at the workplace.

The Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs, Skills and Labour Mobility, Marianne Thyssen, said: ‘Cancer has an enormous impact on workers, their families, industry and society. With this proposal we will save 100,000 lives in the next 50 years. Protection of workers is at the core of the Commission’s commitment to a strong social Europe.”

Concretely, the Commission proposes to address exposure to 13 cancer-causing chemicals by including new or amended limit values in the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive. These limit values set a maximum concentration for the presence of a chemical carcinogen in the workplace air. The proposal is based on scientific evidence and follows broad discussions with scientists, employers, workers, Member States’ representatives and labour inspectors.

One specific example of a new chemical agent to be added is ‘respirable crystalline silica’ (RCS), which the Commission proposes to include in the Directive as a ‘process generated’ substance, meaning dust created by work processes such as mining, quarrying, or tunnelling or cutting, crushing or grinding of silica-containing materials such as concrete, bricks, or rocks. While some companies have good control of airborne concentrations of this chemical, supported by a dedicated social partner agreement, it is nevertheless a leading cause of both the lung disease ‘silicosis’ and occupational lung cancer. The Commission proposal will protect workers across the EU, including in the construction sector, which represents almost 70% of all workers exposed to ‘respirable crystalline silica’.

Introducing these limit values will lead to fewer cases of occupational cancer. In addition, EU limit values promote consistency by defining a ‘level playing field’ for all users and a common objective for employers, workers and enforcement authorities. The proposal therefore leads to a more efficient system of workers’ health protection and improved fairness in the single market.


According to the World Health Organisation (WHO), cancer is the second largest cause of death in most developed countries – and in the European Union cancer is the first cause of work-related deaths. 53% of annual of work-related deaths is due to cancer, compared to 28% for circulatory diseases and 6% for respiratory diseases.

Exposure to some chemical agents at work can cause cancer. While cancer is a complex disease and some causal factors are difficult to identify, it is clear that cancers caused by work can be prevented by reducing or eliminating the exposures leading to the disease.

To ensure that workers are protected against such risks, in 2004 the EU has adopted the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive (CMD). It sets out steps to be taken to eliminate or limit exposure to carcinogenic chemical agents, and as such to help prevent occupational cancers and related diseases

To set limit values for a number of carcinogens under the Directive, the Commission has initiated a scientific and economic assessment of more than 20 priority chemical agents. In the EU around 20 million workers are exposed to at least one of these chemical agents.

This proposal is to introduce limit values for 13 of these identified priority chemical agents. For the remaining chemical agents there is further preparatory work to be done and a proposal covering these will follow by end 2016.

Some of these 13 carcinogens, like ‘respirable crystalline silica’ (RCS), chromium (VI) compounds, hardwood dust or hydrazine, affect very high numbers of workers. For some others there are indications that use patterns may be lower, but those chemicals are considered a priority as the ratio between the number of exposed workers and cancer cases is high.