Directive protects workers from electromagnetic fields

In March 2013, agreement was reached between the Council of the EU, the European Parliament and the European Commission on a new directive to protect workers from the risks associated with electromagnetic fields. The range of occupations covered include power line repairers, welders, workers who use radar and healthcare professionals using magnetic resonance imaging machines. All Member States are expected to transpose its provisions into national law by July 2016.

Background

Directive 2004/40/EC, agreed in April 2004, set out the minimum health and safety requirements for workers exposed to electromagnetic fields, particularly the very large electromagnetic fields found in workplaces where a considerable amount of power is consumed.

However, following adoption of the directive, some stakeholders raised concerns about its possible impact, particularly on the use of medical imaging technology in healthcare and on certain industrial activities. As a result, a deadline to amend the directive was set for the end of April 2012.

Amendment of the directive

The European Commission issued proposed amendments to Directive 2004/40/EC in June 2011 in order to protect those in the healthcare sector using magnetic resonance imaging (MRI) machines, those who use radar, power line repairers and welders.

The development of the directive was one of the priorities of the Danish Presidency during the first half of 2012 (EU1201021I), and work on it continued during the Cypriot Presidency in the second half of 2012.

The specific aims of the directive are:

  • to update the text to take on board new scientific evidence, particularly in relation to limits for exposure to MRI in hospitals;
  • to help employers carry out risk assessments required by EU law;
  • to balance the protection of workers’ health and safety with appropriate flexibility and proportionality, and not unduly hamper the use and development of industrial and medical activities.

In order to give the EU more time to finalise the text, the deadline was postponed to 31 October 2013.

Agreement on the directive’s text

After much deliberation, the Council of the EU, the European Parliament and the European Commission reached agreement on the text on 26 March 2013 at a meeting organised under the Irish Presidency of the Council.

The new directive contains technical annexes setting out the exposure limit values for electromagnetic fields. Member States have the option of maintaining or adopting more favourable provisions for the protection of workers, in particular the fixing of lower maximum levels of exposure to electromagnetic fields.

The new directive addresses the protection of workers exposed to electromagnetic fields and the carrying out of effective and efficient risk assessments, proportional to workplace conditions. In addition, it also defines a protection system that graduates the level of risk in a simple and easily understandable way, and commits the European Commission to producing practical guidelines to help employers meet their obligations under the directive.

The text of the new directive will be examined to ensure that it is harmonised with existing EU workplace health and safety legislation. It is hoped that the directive will be transposed into national law by all Member States by July 2016.

Commentary

Agreement on the text of this directive after many months of discussion is an important step forward for the protection of workers in environments where large electromagnetic fields are found. This principally includes those working in the healthcare sector and with radar, power lines repairers and welders.

This is the final piece of the jigsaw in terms of EU health and safety legislation in the area of physical agents.

The original EU proposal on physical agents was issued in 1993 and sought to establish minimum health and safety requirements for workers exposed to physical agents such as noise, mechanical vibrations, optical radiation, and electromagnetic fields and waves.

In view of the differences between the physical agents concerned and differing levels of the state of scientific knowledge, the European Commission decided to split the proposal into four parts in 1999.

The last of these, on electromagnetic fields, has now been adopted.

Andrea Broughton, Institute for Employment Studies

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