Hazardous substances pose EU threat

Contact with a wide range of chemicals and other hazardous substances at work is endangering the health of workers, a European Union report has concluded.

The study by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work found that a tenth of workers in Europe reported having inhaled vapours, and nearly a fifth claimed to have breathed in dust, fumes or smoke in the workplace.

With as many as 15% of the European workforce working with chemicals for more than a quarter of their day, the risk of dangerous interaction was therefore high, it warned.

Employees in industries such as farming, nursing and construction were frequently dealing with potentially dangerous chemicals, and many were unaware of the risks posed to their health.

Nanotechnology, in particular, was an industry that was causing considerable concern, it added.

“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,” said Jukka Takala, director of the agency.

“Many companies do not give enough consideration to the elimination or substitution of hazardous substances. Management of chemical risks is particularly poor in small to medium-sized enterprises and subcontractor firms,” she added.

In many professions, workers’ skin was exposed to chemicals leading to an increase in the numbers affected by allergic reactions.

It was estimated that chemicals were responsible for 80%-90% of skin diseases, which after musculoskeletal disorders, were the most common occupational complaints, accounting for 13.6% of such illnesses, said the agency.

Worryingly, there were no agreed scientific methods for assessing the effect of these substances on the skin or for setting safe dermal exposure levels, it added.

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