EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Dangerous substances

Dangerous substances are any liquid, gas or solid chemical or biological material that poses a risk to workers’ health or safety.

Many EU employees are at risk of exposure to dangerous substances at work, such as chemicals and biological agents. There are around 100,000 different substances recognised across Europe, with almost every workplace facing some sort of exposure risk. Some of the most common substances include cleaning products, glue, paint, varnish, oil, petrol, solvents and liquefied petroleum gas. Some further risks can be created as a result of processes in the workplace; for example, welding fumes or wood dust can cause serious health problems.

According to the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, 21% of EU employees are exposed to known or suspected carcinogens, 22% of workers inhale fumes and vapours for at least a quarter of their working time and 16% of employees handle or come into contact with dyes, pesticides and other dangerous substances. The risk is particularly acute in the construction, agriculture, printing, cleaning, healthcare and automotive mechanics sectors.

An early Framework Directive 80/1107/EEC of 27 November 1980 on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to chemical, physical and biological agents at work (subsequently modified) led to three directives concerning two chemical agents: Council Directive 82/605/EEC on the protection of workers from the risks related to the exposure to metallic lead and its ionic compounds at work and Council Directive 83/477/EEC of 19 September 1983 on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to asbestos at work. With a view to tightening existing laws to reduce the risks from asbestos that remains in workplace buildings, Directive 2003/18/EC of the European Parliament and of the Council amends Council Directive 83/477/EEC. The updated directive enlarges the scope to cover workers in sea and air transport. As well as giving guidelines for classifying the various types of fibrous silicates in existence and measuring asbestos content in the air, the directive sets exposure limit values for workers, defines company responsibilities and sets out practical recommendations for health examinations for workers. Council Directive 88/364/EEC aims to protect workers by banning specified agents and/or certain activities referred to other dangerous substances, while Council Directive 86/188/EEC is concerned with protecting workers from the risks relating to exposure to noise at work.

Further follow-on directives concerning dangerous substances have been produced under the later framework directive, Council Directive 89/391/EEC of 12 June 1989, on the introduction of measures to encourage improvements in the safety and health of workers at work. These include Directive 90/394/EEC of 28 June 1990 on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to carcinogens at work, which was revised and codified by Directive 2004/37/EC on the protection of workers from risks related to exposure to carcinogens and mutagens at work; Council Directive 90/679/EEC of 26 November 1990 on the protection of workers from the risks related to exposure to biological agents at work; and Directive 98/24/EC which incorporates relevant parts of earlier directives on the protection of the health and safety of workers from the risks related to chemical agents at work.

Additionally, Council Directive 96/29/Euratom of 13 May 1996 lays down the basic safety standards for the protection of the health of workers and the general public against the dangers arising from ionising radiation, while Council Directive 1999/29/EC of 16 December 1999 sets out the minimum requirements for improving the safety and health protection of workers potentially at risk from explosive atmospheres.

See also: Framework Directive on health and safety; occupational accidents and diseases; protective equipment; risk assessment; working environment.

Please note: the European industrial relations dictionary is updated annually. If errors are brought to our attention, we will try to correct them.
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