04/02/2009

New and increasing health risks from hazardous substances

An ever-increasing number of hazardous substances used in industry and in a
wide range of workplaces are threatening the health of workers across Europe. A
new Risk Observatory report identifies the main groups of substances which
could pose new and increasing risks.

Contact with a wide range of chemicals and other hazardous substances at work
is endangering the health of workers across Europe, and nanotechnology is one
of the risks causing most concern to experts from 21 European countries.

A report by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) -
called Expert Forecast on Emerging Chemical Risks - identifies the main groups
of substances which could pose new and increasing risks to workers,
contributing to diseases which range from allergies, asthma, and infertility to
cancers. Dangerous substances are not only found in the chemical industry, but
also in occupations such as farming, nursing, construction and in many small
and medium sized enterprises (SMEs) outside the chemical industry.

"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. Many
companies do not give enough consideration to the elimination or substitution
of hazardous substances. Management of chemical risks is particularly poor in
SMEs and subcontractor firms”, says Jukka Takala, Director of the European
Agency for Safety and Health at Work.

About 15% of European workers report handling chemical products for a quarter
of the time they spend at work, while 10% report inhaling vapours and 19%
report breathing in dust, fumes and smoke in their workplaces.

The Expert Forecast on Emerging Chemical Risks, established by 49 experts
across Europe, puts nanoparticles at the top of the list of substances from
which workers need protection. Nanotechnology is used for example in cosmetics
and IT products and is expected to grow rapidly into a global, multibillion
euro market. While more research into the degree of damage from nanoparticles
on human health is needed, sufficient information to develop interim working
practices to reduce workplace exposure is available.

In many professions workers' skin is exposed to chemicals leading to an
increase in the numbers affected by allergic diseases. It is estimated that
chemicals are responsible for 80-90% of skin diseases, which rank second
(13.6%) on the scale of occupational diseases, following musculoskeletal
disorders. Even so, there are no agreed scientific methods for assessing the
effect of these substances on the skin or for setting safe dermal exposure
levels.

The forecast also highlights substances likely to cause cancers, for example
diesel exhausts. As to reprotoxicants, substances that can damage reproductive
health, the level of awareness is still very scarce and stigmatised as a women
health issue. They are too rarely considered in workplace risk assessments and
in prevention.

Occupations of emerging concern, where workers face high risk of coming into
contact with hazardous substances include waste management, construction and
service activities such as cleaning or home nursing.

Combined exposures to several chemicals are the rule rather than exception and,
when considering each risk independently, the true dimension is likely to be
underestimated. Today concern about multiple exposures is increasing. This was
also shown in EU-OSHA's forecasts on biological, physical and psychosocial
emerging risks. A larger-scale foresight study begins this year and will focus
on workplace risks posed by new technologies over the next ten years.

More information


AplusA-online.de - Source: European Agency for Safety and Health at Work