First European multi-sector agreement on workers’ health protection

In April 2006, members of the multi-sectoral Negotiation Platform on Silica (NePSi) signed a European multi-sector ‘Agreement on workers’ health protection through the good handling and use of crystalline silica and products containing it’. The agreement covers more than two million workers in different sectors of the economy across Europe and aims to reduce workers’ exposure to crystalline silica dust by promoting good practice measures in the workplace.

Workers in different sectors protected

The ‘Agreement on workers’ health protection through the good handling and use of crystalline silica and products containing it’ is the first European multi-sector agreement – an outcome of the European social dialogue via Articles 138–139 of the EC Treaty. On 25 April 2006, several European industry federations signed the agreement, including: the European Mine, Chemical and Energy Workers’ Federation (EMCEF), the European Metalworker’s Federation (EMF), the European Industrial Minerals Association (IMA), the European Association of Mining Industries (Euromines) and 13 other European employer organisations.

Crystalline silica is a mineral which accounts for around 12% of the earth’s crust and is widely used in production processes such as blasting, bagging and mixing materials, grinding and spray glazing. Inhaling respirable crystalline silica can lead to silicosis, a potentially fatal lung condition. Silicosis is also linked to other dangerous lung conditions, such as emphysema and lung cancer.

Through the implementation of good practice measures in the workplace, the agreement aims to improve the protection of over two million workers employed in different sectors of the economy across Europe from exposure to crystalline silica dust. Moreover, it seeks to enhance compliance with current EU and Member States’ health and safety legislation for workers (EU0306202N, EU0404202N). The agreement also provides recommendations and tools for dust exposure monitoring, health surveillance, training and research. Sectors covered by the agreement include aggregates, extractive industries, cement, foundries, glass, mortar, pre-cast concrete and metalliferous minerals. Additional activities related to these sectors, such as the handling of materials, storage and transport are also covered by the agreement.

Ensuring good practice

According to the agreement, ‘the employers and employees and the workers’ representatives will jointly make their best endeavours to implement the good practices at site level in as far as applicable’. This ‘good practice’ list will be subject to an ongoing updating procedure. Improvements are to be reported to a monitoring committee consisting of an equal number of employee and employer representatives. Each level of implementation will be involved in this reporting exercise, from the local sites to the EU25 sector associations. The monitoring committee also has the task of dealing with and answering questions on the application and interpretation of the agreement.

The agreement will enter into force within the next six months; however, it will remain open for signature by employees and employers in sectors that are not yet involved but that are willing to join the agreement.

Commentary

Representatives of the European Commission and the European social partners consider that the agreement represents positive progress in the European sectoral social dialogue (EU0201236F, EU0409205F), and also makes an important contribution to the European social model.

The agreement was signed by the social partners in the presence of the EU Commissioner for Employment, Social Affairs and Equal Opportunities, Vladimír Špidla. ‘This is the first time an agreement covering several sectors has been negotiated by the social partners through their own procedures. I would like to congratulate them on such a worthy agreement. It will protect workers in many sectors and help them benefit from better practices, making a real difference to their working conditions’, the Commissioner commented.

On behalf of the employer representatives, Michelle Wyart-Remy, Secretary General of IMA-Europe, expressed her satisfaction with the way the whole process has evolved. Ms Wyart-Remy insisted that this successful negotiation has paved the way for a promising future, in which workers’ health protection and exposure prevention will be at the centre of the signatory sectors’ efforts.

Bart Samyn, EMF Deputy Secretary General, remarked: ‘This agreement is important to ensure good health surveillance for the workers involved in the sectors concerned and especially in the prevention of all possible risks involved with respirable silica dust, while at the same time also securing the future perspectives of our industry in Europe. It is now up to the social partners to make this agreement work.’

Patrick Mazeau, EMCEF Deputy Secretary General, stated: ‘This agreement has the merit of putting forward real content in the European social dialogue. This dialogue, which was autonomously conducted by the social partners, is directly addressed to employees and employers without any intermediaries. This is one of the characteristics of the European sectoral social dialogue that has the huge advantage of being a true reflection of the daily realities of employees in enterprises.’

Volker Telljohann, Fondazione Istituto per il Lavoro

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