Working towards a safer EU

Keith
Nuthall looks at how the EU is tackling two areas of particular relevance to
occupational health – electromagnetic exposure to workers and road safety

Electromagnetic
exposure

The
European Union (EU) has a reputation for tortoise-like progress in the approval
of its legislation, and maybe that is no great surprise, given its proposals
have to satisfy an overwhelming majority of its 15 member countries and
European parliamentarians.

However,
the 11 years that the EU’s Council of Ministers took to agree limit values on
the maximum electromagnetic exposure is something out of the ordinary, even in
Brussels. The reason for such a time-lag in approving such an important OH
proposal is the blinding technical progress in microwave technology over the
past decade, especially regarding telecommunication devices.

Ministers
and MEPs have been conscious of the need to avoid passing legislation that is
out of date as soon as it is written into the statute book. But national
governments decided there was sufficient stability in European technology in
2003 to have a stab at forging decent legislation.

So,
what does it look like? Under a directive agreed at the Council of Ministers
last October, employers in any sector across the EU will be required to carry
out risk assessments of the dangers to their staff from equipment such as power
lines, radio, television and mobile phone masts, as well as large furnaces,
such as those in the metal industry.

Crucially,
this directive, Safety and health at work: exposure of workers to
electromagnetic fields, sets out maximum levels for exposure, and also
establishes the levels at which preventive measures must be taken by employers.

This
is an advance on existing UK legislation, which does not, according to the
Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH), currently include such
technical specifications.

The
limits agreed by the Council of Ministers are calculated according to complex
mathematical formulae based on the frequency range, the strength of an electric
field, lengths of exposure and whether there are multiple or single
frequencies. For example, in the frequency range 0.3 to 10 GHz and for
localised exposure of the head, an exposure limit should not exceed 10 mJ per
kg of body weight. These limit values have been designed to prevent workers
receiving induced electric currents in the body, shocks and burns, and the
absorption of thermal energy produced by electromagnetic fields.

The
legislation as it stands (and it will almost certainly receive further amendments
from the European Parliament), sets out issues that should be covered in risk
assessments. These include, for example, direct and indirect effects, such as
interference with medical equipment (for example, pacemakers), or ignition of
flammable objects.

Depending
on the outcome of this risk assessment, employers may also be required to draw
up an action plan of organisational and technical measures to reduce levels,
and to display warning signs in areas with excessive levels of electromagnetic
field.

Employers
would also be required to provide adequate information and training for any
workers that might be at risk.

Article
3 of the directive sets out exposure limit values and action values for workers
who come into constant contact with electromagnetic radiation. There are also
different rules for workplaces open to the public. If an evaluation has already
been carried out – following the rules of EU Council Recommendation 1999/519/EC
on the limitation of exposure of the general public to electromagnetic fields –
and the checks conclude that there are no significant safety risks, then the
employer doesn’t need to carry out a new evaluation of the exposure levels.

These
rules are complex and will lay a serious responsibility on whoever is
conducting the risk assessment, according to IOSH technical affairs manager Ken
Lucas. “If they are not trained and competent to identify these hazards, there
could be problems,” he said, noting that there are “still people in industry
who do not know the difference between hazards and risk”.

However,
the specification of maximum levels of exposure would help bring assessors up
to speed, he told Occupational Health. What was now needed was for businesses
with electromagnetic exposure risks to undertake training of assessors and make
use of services offered by such organisations as Britain’s National
Radiological Protection Board, he says.

In
Brussels, the passing of the legislation has been welcomed by Anna
Diamantopoulou, the EU’s employment and social affairs commissioner. She says:
“We are all committed to achieving better protection of the health and safety
of workers exposed to risks at work. The directive foresees preventive actions
to protect the health and safety of workers. The scientific data available
shows that over-exposure to electromagnetic fields can have serious
consequences for workers’ health.”

Road
safety

The
areas concerning OH are constantly expanding beyond the immediate workplace,
and one of particular interest, currently under wide discussion at the EU, is
road safety.

Proposals
are being debated that will not only affect the technical design of vehicles,
but also the road safety checks by public authorities and the compensation
available from insurance payouts. The importance of such issues could be
increased in future, with occupational health circles discussing whether “road
deaths could be investigated as a workplace injury in future,” says Lucas.

With
reference to technology, the European Commission (EC) has released its
anticipated proposal for banning the fitting of bull-bars on passenger cars or
light vans in the EU, following a call for action from the European Parliament.

The
proposed legislation follows a series of talks between the commission and
manufacturers associations in Europe, Japan and South Korea, where car
manufacturers have promised not to install ‘rigid bull bars’ as frontal
protection devices from 2002.

The
commitment came after broad talks took place searching for a wide series of
voluntary commitments on collision impact adaptations to auto designs. These
too were abandoned in favour of broad safety legislation, which is currently
being debated by the parliament and the EU Council of Ministers.

However,
on the subject of bull bars, the commission has yielded to pressure for a more
specific ban, and this has now been tabled for approval by MEPs and ministers.
Member states would have to block type-approval for all new models with bull
bars from July 2005, and ban the fitting of bull bars on any new car sold in
the EU after January 2006.

Bull
bars are not the only technical safety issue being examined in Brussels at the
moment. The commission is very keen to see the fitting of the latest
intelligent and e-safety devices in cars, which can warn motorists of road
conditions and correct driver error automatically. The EU enterprise
commissioner, Erkki Liikanen, has even warned that he might have to table
legislation to force car manufacturers to include these devices in designs if
there is a low take up.

On
road safety checks, the commission wants to force EU member states to be more
attentive to the condition of lorries and the working conditions of drivers, to
make sure they are not working excessive hours and are more tired than is safe.
A new proposal in this area is raising the quantity of safety checks on lorry
operators from 1 to 3 per cent of days worked. The commission’s tabled
directive would ensure that at least 50 per cent of checks are carried out on
the employers’ premises, and orders each EU member state to designate a lead
enforcement body for this work. The legislation would also insist on basic
standards for training and equipping staff.

Another
clause would insist that member states design road infrastructure plans to
include sufficient lay-bys or service stations to allow for roadside checks and
rest-periods for drivers. This is useful legislation, according to Lucas.
“There are too many people killed on the roads. Any improvement to road safety
is welcome, whether it affects cars or lorries,” he says.

Nonetheless,
whatever reductions in road accident numbers are achieved by these proposals,
there will still be traffic injuries. Because of this, a further piece of
legislation under discussion in Brussels, aiming to improve compensation rates
for victims.

Ministers
and MEPs are trying to set minimum levels of coverage provided by compulsory
motor insurance in the EU, and although there is no agreement yet on its level,
there is a consensus that minimum coverage rates must be raised.

At
its latest airing – at a European Parliament plenary session – MEPs backed the
views of the insurance industry by taking a political machete to proposed
amendments from its legal affairs committee.

It
had tabled minimum coverage of 10 million euros per accident for personal
injury (whatever the number of victims), and 5 million euros in the case of
damage to property. Instead, the plenary (full parliament) voted for minimum
personal injury coverage on compulsory motor insurance policies to reach at least
5 million euros per accident.

This
was welcomed by the Comité Européen des Assurances (CEA), which said it was “in
line with CEA proposals”. It was particularly pleased with this vote, given
that the plenary also set a minimum coverage level of 2 million euros per
victim.

The
CEA said: “If an individual minimum cover per person had been adopted by
itself, insurers’ finances would have been jeopardised for accidents involving
large numbers of seriously injured people.”

The
industry body was less happy with the plenary’s decision regarding property
damage claims from motor accidents, with MEPs saying policies should offer at
least 2 million euros in possible compensation.

www.cec.org.uk, European
Commission Representation in the United Kingdom

www.europe.osha.eu, European Agency for
Health and Safety at Work

www.europa.eu.int/cj/en/index.htm,
European Court of Justice

www.iosh.co.uk, Institution of Occupational
Safety and Health

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