EU-OSHA Helps to Protect Workers Across Europe From Exposure to Dangerous Substances
EU-OSHA’s flagship awareness-raising activity is a pan-European campaign named the Healthy Workplaces Campaign. Under the slogan “Safety and health at work is everyone’s concern. It’s good for you. It’s good for business,” activities in a given cycle cover a specific topic, aimed at spreading the message to workplaces all over Europe and beyond.
The ongoing 2018-19 campaign focuses on the safe and efficient management of dangerous substances, to overcome the threat to workers’ wellbeing and successful business performance. A dangerous substance can be any solid, liquid or gas material that has the potential to cause damage to the safety or health.
Exposure to and the health impact of dangerous substances in the workplace is not well understood by everyone concerned. Many workers and employers are unaware that dangerous substances and the related legislation cover more than some well-known chemicals. Examples are different types of dust, substances produced during welding or combustion processes in engines, or substances created in degradation processes, like in the waste and recycling sector.
17 percent of EU workers report handling or being in skin contact with chemicals for at least 25 percent of their working time.
Reports suggest that chemical or biological substances are used in 38 percent of enterprises, with this figure reaching almost two-thirds in certain industries. Large businesses often use more than 1,000 different chemical products and a single worker can come in touch with hundreds of different substances. 17 percent of EU workers report handling or being in skin contact with chemicals for at least 25 percent of their working time and 15 percent breathing in smoke, fumes (e.g. welding or exhaust fumes), powder or dust (such as wood dust or mineral dust).
Whilst such exposure can occur in almost all working environments, certain sectors are at higher risk. Industrial maintenance workers are due to the nature of their work more likely to come into contact with hazardous chemicals. Depending on the specific type, these substances may not only cause diseases, but many of them are highly flammable and explosive. Dangerous substances may be encountered from different sources – from heavy use of products in cleaning, painting or degreasing activities to dermal and inhalatory exposure in welding, machinery or equipment maintenance. Maintenance workers are subject to a wide range of risks emerging from detergents, solvents and acids or substances generated as by-products, such as diesel exhaust, welding fumes, sanding dust or even poisonous gas.
Harm can arise already from a single short contact, while continuing exposure to dangerous chemicals leads to longstanding accumulation of substances in the body. They can enter the human body through skin penetration, inhalation or ingestion. The impacts range from mild and temporary effects, such as skin and throat irritation, to serious long-term diseases. These include life-changing and life-threatening illnesses, respiratory diseases (e.g. asthma, asbestosis and silicosis), damage to the brain and the nervous system, and occupational cancers (e.g. leukaemia, lung cancer, mesothelioma and cancer of the nasal cavity). It can also result in reproductive problems in men and women and birth defects in children.
Furthermore, the majority of fatal occupational diseases in the EU stem from carcinogens. It is estimated that more than 120,000 workers in the EU annually develop cancer as a result of work-related exposure to such substances, triggering almost 80,000 deaths per year. EU-OSHA is, alongside five other European organisations, member of the Roadmap on Carcinogens and committed to reducing the presence of cancer-causing elements. Through activities and events organised within the Roadmap scheme, the partners involved provide significant information on exposure limit values and influence behaviour and development of a risk prevention culture in small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Started in 2016 under the Netherlands EU Presidency, the roadmap’s next destination is Helsinki, with the forthcoming Finnish EU Presidency announcing to support the scheme to the end of 2019.
Musculoskeletal Disorders Next in Focus
EU-OSHA already looks towards its next Healthy Workplaces campaign, addressing one of the most common issues of work-related ailments, namely musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). Nevertheless, the Agency’s efforts reach far beyond campaign activities. OSH overviews collected within numerous project undertakings give a clear view of what lies ahead in the future of work.
As part of its work on anticipating the risks associated with new and emerging technologies and ways of working, EU-OSHA has embarked on a series of foresight studies. It has also been investigating how to ensure that such studies can be used to inform policies. Issues addressed by EU-OSHA’s foresight projects include, so far, the impact of digitisation, artificial intelligence and robotics on OSH and the potential risks for workers in ‘green’ jobs.
Such foresight studies will be increasingly relevant as the world of work changes ever faster in the next 25 years.
Key to Safety is a Strong Risk Assessment Culture
Taking into consideration EU-OSHA’s tools and resources, businesses can best contribute to workers’ protection with active and participatory safety and health management. This means employers and employees working together and sharing responsibility for preventing workplace risks. The involvement of workers enables a better assessment of their needs and expectations and ensures a comprehensive understanding of the necessary organisational changes. Efficient management of dangerous substances is in the interest of everyone, as both parties benefit from improved working conditions. Workers become more aware of risks and protection measures, which increases compliance with safety requirements and brings a higher level of job satisfaction. At the same time, the organisation’s costs get reduced following the lower accident and sickness-related absence, providing for greater business reputation.
The key to managing the hazards is creating a strong risk assessment culture. Identification of risks requires an overview of dangerous products and processes with the purpose to compare substances’ safety and health properties. The most effective way to minimise the threats is to completely eliminate the use of dangerous substances. However, if this is not possible, EU legislation outlines a hierarchy of prevention measures to tackle the risks at the source. It is referred to as the STOP principle and it sets out the steps in order of priority: Substitution, Technological measures, Organisational measures, and Personal protection. Companies should always strive to substitute hazardous products with a safer alternative. Exposure may also be prevented or reduced by applying technical or organisational measures, such as better ventilation to minimise the concentration of the dangerous substance or decreasing the duration and intensiveness of the worker’s exposure.
To improve the understanding of the necessity to manage dangerous substances in workplaces and to provide appropriate data on policy developments and legislation, EU-OSHA has produced a comprehensive collection of available resources. For instance, a database of practical tools and guidance contains over 800 good practices and case studies offering useful advice on risk prevention. The main facts are presented in a visually attractive and easy-to-follow way in infographics, info sheets and reports. Furthermore, an interactive e-tool provides tailored support for SMEs to carry out a risk assessment and a campaign toolkit assists with running an awareness-raising campaign on occupational safety and health. Particularly popular is a series of promotional videos featuring the cartoon character Napo in his humorous approach to educating about safety and health at work. All informational materials are available through thematic web sections on the official Healthy Workplaces Campaign website, which is accessible in 25 EU languages.
Dr. Christa Sedlatschek,
Director of EU-OSHA
The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) contributes to making Europe a safer, healthier and more productive place to work. The Agency researches, develops and distributes reliable, balanced, and impartial safety and health information and organises pan-European awareness-raising campaigns. Set up by the European Union in 1994 and based in Bilbao, Spain, the Agency brings together representatives from the European Commission, Member State governments, employers’ and workers’ organisations, as well as leading experts in each of the EU Member States and beyond.
2019 is a special year for EU-OSHA as it honours 25 years since its foundation. In celebration of a quarter of a century of working together to make Europe’s workplaces safer, healthier and more productive, an article published each month walks readers through the Agency’s story. In June, high-level European and national representatives will gather at a ceremony in Bilbao. The last 25 years have seen significant changes in the world of work and no different is anticipated for the future. EU-OSHA will continue adding its European value by bringing together actors from across Europe and by providing the tools to create a common approach to occupational safety and health (OSH) while respecting national specificities. We help OSH in Europe to be more than the sum of its parts by collecting and exchanging technical information and good practice.
Follow the hashtag #EUOSHA25 .
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