EurWORK European Observatory of Working Life

Electromagnetic fields

Electromagnetic fields are defined as ‘static magnetic and time varying electric, magnetic and electromagnetic fields with frequencies up to 300 GHz’ by Directive 2004/40/EC on the minimum health and safety requirements regarding the exposure of workers to the risks arising from physical agents (electromagnetic fields).

This Directive aims to protect workers from the very large amounts of electromagnetic fields that can be found in certain workplaces, typically where much power is consumed. It sets exposure limits and is particularly relevant to workers such as doctors and nurses giving patients magnetic resonance imaging scans (MRI), people working with radar, welders and workers repairing power lines. The Directive was adopted together with other measures intended to protect workers from the health effects of other physical agents, such as noise, vibration and optical radiation.

The Directive obliges employers to assess, measure and calculate the levels of exposure of workers to electromagnetic fields. This must be carried out in accordance with the obligations laid down in the framework health and safety Directive 89/391/EEC. Results of risk assessments must be recorded on a suitable medium and kept up to date on a regular basis, particularly if there have been significant changes which could render them out of date, or if the results of health surveillance show it to be necessary.

Carrying out the risk assessment, the employer must give particular attention to level, frequency spectrum, type and duration of exposure, interferences with other electronic devices and fires and explosions resulting from ignition of flammable material.

However, soon after the Directive’s adoption in 2004, the medical community working with MRI claimed that its activities would be hampered by the strict exposure limit values laid down in the Directive. Due to these difficulties in its application and to allow time for the Directive to be amended in the light of new scientific information, the European Parliament and the Council decided to delay its transposition until 30 April 2012.

In responses to these concerns from the medical community and those of other industrial sectors about the impact of the Directive on their activities, a new proposal was issued by the Commission in June 2011 in order to amend the existing Directive. Although significant progress was made on this proposal in the Council's bodies during 2011, as at late 2011, ministers felt that, given that the dossier is very complex and technical, there is still a need for further consultations with experts on two main sets of issues: the way of expressing exposure limitations and derogation(s) to binding exposure limits.

See also: Health and safety personnel; Health and safety representatives; Health and safety; Dangerous substances; European Agency for Safety and Health at Work; Protective equipment; Risk assessment; Occupational accidents and diseases


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