Select Committee on European Scrutiny First Report



Presidency draft of a Council Directive on the minimum health and safety requirements regarding the exposure of workers to risks arising from physical agents.

Legal base: Article 137 EC; co-decision; qualified majority voting
Department: Transport, Local Government and the Regions
Basis of consideration: Minister's letter of 3 July 2001
Previous consideration: HC 28-xi (2000-01), paragraph 7 (4 April 2001)
Committee's assessment: Politically important
Committee's decision: Cleared


40.1  Council Directive 89/931/EEC[59] provides a framework for the introduction of measures to improve the safety and health of workers at work by laying down the general principles to be followed. In February 1993, the Commission put forward a proposal[60] for a further, more specific Directive, which would have set out harmonised requirements for protection against noise, vibration, optical radiation and non-ionising electro-magnetic radiation. Its justification was that all workers are entitled to a certain level of health protection, while their employers should be on an equal footing so as to avoid social "dumping" and distortions of competition. The requirements laid down would have included the assessment of worker exposure; programmes to reduce risk by technological or organisational means; provision of personal protective equipment; information and training for workers; health surveillance; and choice of work equipment and design of work places. A subsequent version of the proposal was produced in July 1994[61] following the Opinion of the European Parliament.

40.2  A previous Committee considered these proposals on a number of occasions, when it noted the then Government's view that existing Community legislation already imposed a duty on employers to assess risks to workers' health and safety, and that neither the Commission nor any Member State had produced evidence that the Community needed to legislate further. In the light of this, and the likelihood that the proposal would impose "significant" costs on industry, it made no recommendation for its further consideration.

40.3  The German Presidency in 1999 subsequently put forward an amended draft,[62] restricting the proposal to protection against vibration, whilst leaving scope for other physical agents to be brought within the same framework by similar Directives. This was accordingly followed in January of this year by the current document, which is a draft text from the Swedish Presidency dealing with noise. The intention is that this should replace the existing Council Directive (86/188/EEC)[63] which protects workers from the risks associated with exposure to noise at work. In particular, where average daily exposure exceeds 85 dB, the Directive requires workers to receive adequate information and training as regards the risks involved and the protective measures available, and ear protectors must be made available; where such exposure exceeds 90 dB, ear protectors must be worn and the areas in question must be both clearly signed and subject to restricted access.

40.4  The main effect of the Presidency text would be to reduce the level of exposure at which these measures have to be taken. As a result, the obligation to inform and train workers would now arise when the average exposure exceeds 80 dB, as would the provision of ear protectors, whilst the threshold above which it would be necessary to wear ear protectors, to delimit and clearly mark high noise areas, and to establish a programme of noise control measures, would be reduced from 90 to 85 dB. In addition, there would be a new requirement under which workers exposed to noise above 80 dB would have to be included in routine health surveillance programmes.

40.5  As our predecessors noted in their Report of 4 April 2001, the UK supports the decision to deal with the various aspects of the 1994 Commission proposal separately, rather than in a single Directive. It also regards the link between hearing damage and noise exposure over a period of time as well established, with 1.3 million people in the UK exposed to noise levels above the proposed 85 dB level. Also, the Government says that, although it is not yet possible fully to evaluate the effectiveness of the existing legislation, it believes that there is good evidence of a hazard down to 85dB (and a residual risk down to 82 dB), but that the magnitude of the hazard diminishes rapidly below 90 dB. On that basis, it considers that, though compliance with the existing Directive would not totally eliminate risk, it should over time lead to significant reductions in noise-induced hearing damage. Consequently, the UK broadly takes the view that priority should be given to encouraging better compliance with existing standards and legislation, rather than seeking to tighten them, and thus does not regard the Presidency proposal as proportionate. It therefore intended to seek to reduce the costs of the measure to industry by increasing the proposed limits towards those in Directive 86/188/EEC with an appropriate transition period. It also believed that any changes should be made by amending the earlier Directive rather than through a new measure.

40.6  The Government had also provided a detailed Regulatory Impact Assessment, which put the first-year costs of the proposal at between £197 and 302 million, with a 10-year (present value) cost of between £844 and 1,090 million, and a 40-year (present value) cost of between £1,888 and 2,888 million. In the latter two cases, the benefits (in present-value terms) are estimated to be £20 to 306 million, and around £800 million, respectively.

40.7  Our predecessors noted the Government's view that the measure overall was not proportionate, and the apparently large difference between the possible costs of this measure and its potential benefits. Consequently, although they recognised that it was for the Government to take a view on where the balance should be struck between the costs and benefits, they said that they would like to be kept informed of any significant developments that might arise during discussion in the Council. In the meantime, they left the document uncleared.

Minister's letter of 3 July 2001

40.8  In his letter of 3 July 2001, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr Alan Whitehead) says that the Swedish Presidency pressed ahead rapidly with negotiations, and succeeded in its aim of reaching political agreement on a common position at the Employment and Social Policy Council on 11 June.

40.9  As to the substance of the proposal, he says that the UK was unable to persuade other Member States to support its call for a full evaluation of the impact of the Presidency proposal, or of the case for increasing the proposed action noise levels towards those in the 1986 Directive. Nevertheless, he says that the UK was able to secure significant changes, and he considers that it achieved the best outcome in ensuring that the costs of the directive are not excessive, without detracting from the health and safety benefits. In this connection, the Minister drew particular attention to the fact that:

  • the limitation on personal noise exposure now allows hearing protection to be taken into account;

  • the limit on personal noise exposure will be set at 87 dB(A), rather than the 85 dB(A) suggested by the Presidency;

  • hearing protectors are no longer required to reduce the level of exposure below 80 dB(A), a step which the UK regarded as unnecessary in terms of health benefit and technically difficult to achieve where there are high ambient noise levels;

  • where noise exposure varies from day to day, it can be averaged over a week rather than over 8 hours, thus concentrating noise control on the areas of risk from continuous exposure, and releasing many occasionally exposed workers from many of the provisions of the directive;

  • the requirement for health surveillance at 80 dB(A) will be replaced by a right to hearing checks at 85 dB(A), which the Minister says will avoid considerable unnecessary and costly medical intervention;

  • an extra five years will be allowed for the new limits on personal noise exposure for shipping to enable technical advances in noise exposure to be incorporated in ship design.

40.10  The Minister also refers in his letter to the latest estimates of the costs and benefits of the new measure. He says that the Health and Safety Executive estimates that some 2.3 million people in the UK are exposed to above 80 dB(A), and will thus be brought within the scope of the directive. He adds that a revised Regulatory Impact Assessment will be produced, but that the final costs are expected to be lower than those originally forecast, and the benefits over 40 years in terms of reduced ill-health likely to be broadly in line with these.


40.11  We are grateful to the Minister for this information, and have noted the amendments to the Presidency proposal which have been incorporated in the Council's Common Position. We have also noted that the Government will be letting us have a revised Regulatory Impact Assessment, but, whilst we will await that with interest, we are content, in the light of the developments since our predecessors last considered the subject, to clear the document.

59   OJ No. L 183, 29.6.89, p.1. Back

60   (14430) 5059/93; see HC 79-xxv (1992-93), paragraph 5 (21 April 1993). Back

61   (15504) 8392/94; see HC 48-xxvi (1993-94), paragraph 11 (19 October 1994). Back

62   (19934) - ; see HC 34-xiii (1998-99), paragraph 7 (17 March 1999), HC 34-xviii (1998-99), paragraph 5 (5 May 1999), HC 23-xxx (1999-2000), paragraph 10 (22 November 2000) and HC 28-i (2000-01), paragraph 7 (13 December 2000). Back

63   OJ No. L 137, 24.5.86, p.28. Back

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