- Improving REACH registration and authorisation
- Exploring the universe of registered substances
- Moving away from BPA in thermal paper
- Investing in good registration data is an investment in safety
- Get to know ECHA’s Submission portal for poison centre notifications
- Assessing endocrine disrupting properties for biocides
- Controlling exposure to harmful chemicals at work
- Which pieces of EU legislation apply to your substances?
- Stopping products sidestepping enforcement through rebranding
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Article related to: news from echa
Controlling exposure to harmful chemicals at work
Since January 2019, ECHA has been supporting the European Commission in establishing occupational exposure limits for selected chemicals to improve the protection of workers’ health and safety. We explain what occupational exposure limits are, how the EU implements them through legislation, and what role ECHA has in their preparation.
An occupational exposure limit (OEL) is a regulatory value setting a safe concentration level of a chemical substance in the air of a workplace. They are set at EU and national level by regulatory authorities and help employers protect the health of workers from possible risks when using chemicals at work.
The Commission and ECHA agreed in January 2019 that the Agency will start providing recommendations for priority OELs under occupational safety and health (OSH) legislation. The agreement followed a pilot project run from 2017 to 2018 concerning five carcinogenic substances. ECHA expects to carry out OEL assessments for four to five substances per year.
“The scientific evaluations carried out by ECHA underpin the legislative proposal for EU occupational exposure limits for specific chemicals or substances, whether they are indicative or binding. Having a sound scientific basis is indispensable to any occupational safety and health action, particularly in relation to dangerous chemicals,” explains Mr Alick Morris, Policy Officer at the European Commission.
OSH – managing occupational risk
OSH legislation aims to protect Europeans at work, regardless of whether they are exposed to noise, bad workplace ergonomics, psychological stress or chemicals. Taking action on harmful chemicals forms a significant part of OSH policy in the EU and is a priority area for worker protection.
OSH requires employers to carry out a wider workplace risk assessment, while REACH requires them to implement a chemical-specific risk assessment. Under REACH, manufacturers and importers have to communicate safe use information for chemical substances down the supply chain in safety data sheets and exposure scenarios. OSH, on the other hand, covers the wider use of chemical agents and their emissions, also considering the waste stage. REACH and OSH are mutually exclusive pieces of legislation that operate without prejudice to each other, meaning that companies might have obligations under both and need to comply with each of them.
Together, the two sets of legislation provide a high level of worker protection.
RAC to prepare recommendations to the Commission
The Commission decides the substances for which OELs are needed. “Concerning our work on chemicals, decisions on priority substances are supported by discussions in the tripartite Working Party on Chemicals. This working group comprises experts from Member States together with representatives of employer and worker organisations,” Mr Morris tells.
When the Commission has assigned a substance for ECHA to assess, the Agency will prepare a scientific report for RAC based on the available scientific data and any relevant information collected through a call for evidence. The report will then be open for a public consultation, after which RAC will discuss and then adopt its opinion on the report and send it to the Commission. “The decision for setting an occupational exposure limit is always based on extensive consultations, including employers, workers and Member State authorities. Full support and ownership of social partners and governments is essential for ensuring effective implementation and enforcement of the limit values,” Mr Morris points out.
Indicative or binding?
OELs can either be indicative or binding. Indicative OELs are adopted directly by the Commission. For binding OELs, the Commission adopts a legislative proposal based on RAC’s opinion and discussion between the Member State authorities and social partners. The proposal is then sent to the Council and the European Parliament for the final adoption.
“Indicative occupational exposure limits are health-based limits established for substances for which it is possible to set a level where there should be no risk to workers’ health. This is typically the case under the Chemical Agents Directive. Member States must establish a corresponding national occupational exposure limit value in accordance with national legislation and practice, taking the EU value into account,” Mr Morris explains.
In some cases, it may not be scientifically possible to identify a safe level of exposure. “This is typically the situation for substances under the Carcinogens and Mutagens Directive where it may not yet be realistically feasible to achieve an identified safe level due to technical considerations in some or all sectors of employment. It will then be necessary to set a binding occupational exposure limit to provide a minimum level of protection for all workers in the EU. In such cases, Member States must set a corresponding binding limit that does not exceed the EU value,” Mr Morris clarifies.
What ECHA is looking at now
In 2019, the Commission asked ECHA to assess lead and its compounds and diisocyanates. “We asked RAC to assess lead as it is a major reprotoxic substance for which stakeholders have long since pleaded for a scientific reassessment of the 20-year-old limit value. Diisocyanates are substances to which a high number of workers are exposed and which cause many cases of pulmonary asthma each year,” Mr Morris concludes.
RAC’s opinions on these two substances are expected to be ready towards the end of 2020.
Mr Alick Morris is a Policy Officer in the field of chemicals working at the European Commission’s Health and Safety Unit in the Directorate-General Employment, Social Affairs and Inclusion.
Did you know?
As directives, they outline certain results that Member States need to achieve by transposing the requirements of the directives into national legislation. They set out minimum standards for worker protection. Occupational exposure limits adopted by the EU need to be integrated into national legislation framework. By contrast, regulations such as REACH apply directly and uniformly to all Member States, without needing to be transposed into national law.
Text by Nedyu Yasenov
Published on: 16 May 2019
Updated on: 21 May 2019 – headline changed.
Top image: © iStock.com/Reptile8488
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Biocidal Products Committee:
26 February-1 March
Committee for Risk Assessment:
6-8 March and
Committee for Socio-Economic
Management Board meeting:
23-27 March (tentative)
Member State Committee:
20-24 April (tentative)