Contact with a wide range of chemicals and other hazardous substances at work is endangering the health of workers across Europe, and nanotechnology is one of the risks causing most concern to experts from 21 European countries.
A report by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) – called Expert Forecast on Emerging Chemical Risks - identifies the main groups of substances which could pose new and increasing risks to workers, contributing to diseases which range from allergies, asthma, and infertility to cancers. Dangerous substances are not only found in the chemical industry, but also in occupations such as farming, nursing, construction and in many small and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) outside the chemical industry.
“It is estimated that each year there are 74,000 work-related deaths linked to hazardous substances encountered in the workplace. This means that 10 times more people die from dangerous substances than from workplace accidents. Many companies do not give enough consideration to the elimination or substitution of hazardous substances. Management of chemical risks is particularly poor in SMEs and subcontractor firms”, says Jukka Takala, Director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.
About 15% of European workers report handling chemical products for a quarter of the time they spend at work, while 10% report inhaling vapours and 19% report breathing in dust, fumes and smoke in their workplaces.
The Expert Forecast on Emerging Chemical Risks, established by 49 experts across Europe, puts nanoparticles at the top of the list of substances from which workers need protection. Nanotechnology is used for example in cosmetics and IT products and is expected to grow rapidly into a global, multibillion euro market. While more research into the degree of damage from nanoparticles on human health is needed, sufficient information to develop interim working practices to reduce workplace exposure is available.
In many professions workers’ skin is exposed to chemicals leading to an increase in the numbers affected by allergic diseases. It is estimated that chemicals are responsible for 80-90% of skin diseases, which rank second (13.6%) on the scale of occupational diseases, following musculoskeletal disorders. Even so, there are no agreed scientific methods for assessing the effect of these substances on the skin or for setting safe dermal exposure levels.
The forecast also highlights substances likely to cause cancers, for example diesel exhausts. As to reprotoxicants, substances that can damage reproductive health, the level of awareness is still very scarce and stigmatised as a women health issue. They are too rarely considered in workplace risk assessments and in prevention.
Occupations of emerging concern, where workers face high risk of coming into contact with hazardous substances include waste management, construction and service activities such as cleaning or home nursing.
Combined exposures to several chemicals are the rule rather than exception and, when considering each risk independently, the true dimension is likely to be underestimated. Today concern about multiple exposures is increasing. This was also shown in EU-OSHA’s forecasts on biological, physical and psychosocial emerging risks. A larger-scale foresight study begins this year and will focus on workplace risks posed by new technologies over the next ten years.
EU-OSHA organised a seminar where the results of the forecast were discussed with EU policy-makers, social partners and OSH experts. The workshop conclusions add to the wide range of good practice information EU-OSHA offers to employers, safety and health professionals and to workers and their representatives.