Select Committee on European Scrutiny Ninth Report



COM(01) 417

Draft Council Directive amending for the second time Council Directive 83/477/EEC on the protection of workers from asbestos.
Legal base: Article 137 EC; co-decision; qualified majority voting
Document originated: 20 July 2001
Deposited in Parliament: 2 October 2001
Department: Transport, Local Government and the Regions
Basis of consideration: EM of 9 October 2001
Previous Committee Report: None
To be discussed in Council: No date set
Committee's assessment: Politically important
Committee's decision: Cleared


  17.1  Because of the health risks from asbestos, including fibrosis and cancer, the Community has taken a number of measures to reduce exposure to it. Over the years, the marketing and use of brown asbestos (amosite) and blue asbestos (crocidolite) has progressively been restricted, and, as from 1 January 2005, the remaining type still in use — white asbestos (chrysotile) — will also be banned. These steps have been complemented by measures to reduce the risks arising at work. In particular, Council Directive 83/477/EEC[45] provides that, where an activity is likely to involve exposure to asbestos dust, the risk must be assessed. Exposure must be reduced to as low a level as reasonably practicable, and in any case, to levels below the limit values[46] specified in the Directive; and, where those limit values are exceeded, the reason must be established. In addition, unless the risk is below a certain threshold defined in the Directive, the employer concerned must notify its work force and the responsible national authority; measurement of asbestos in the air must be carried out by prescribed means; areas at risk must be clearly indicated, and accessible only to those required to enter them; the health of individual workers must be assessed; and the names of those at risk must be entered on a register. The Directive also requires that, before demolition work takes place, a work plan ensuring the health and safety of workers must be drawn up.

  17.2  The implementation of these measures was examined by the Commission in 1996. It found that they still had a useful role to play in protecting workers, and concluded that Directive 83/477/EEC would only have to be completely revised in the event of a radical change in policy on the marketing of products containing asbestos. However, in taking note of the Commission's views, the Council in 1997 invited it to consider the merits of refocusing the protective measures on those now most at risk; of ensuring that risk assessments reflect the different risks arising from work where exposure to asbestos is an intrinsic, as opposed to incidental, feature; and of revising the exposure limits and reviewing the method for assessing asbestos fibres in air. Similar views were expressed subsequently by the Economic and Social Committee and by the European Parliament.

The current proposal

  17.3  In the light of these opinions, and of the steps taken since to introduce a ban on chrysotile, the Commission has brought forward this proposal. It notes that, despite the safeguards in Council Directive 83/477/EEC, asbestos still poses a real problem in the workplace, and that a large number of related illnesses will still arise as a result of the high levels of exposure between 1945 and 1980. However, it says that, with the Community-wide prohibition on asbestos now applying to chrysotile, preventive measures should be focussed on situations in which exposure may actually occur in future, notably in connection with demolition, maintenance, repair and electrical and plumbing work in buildings. Consequently, the main change proposed in the scope of the Directive is a new requirement on employers in control of workplaces where demolition or maintenance work is to take place to determine the presence of asbestos-containing materials.

  17.4  In addition, the proposal would make a number of other changes, as follows:

  • workers in sea and air transport would for the first time be covered;

  • exemptions from the full requirements of the Directive in the event of limited exposure to asbestos would in future be restricted to notifications, medical surveillance and record keeping, and the threshold would be re-defined as no more than two hours exposure in any seven day period;

  • a single exposure limit averaging 0.1 fibres per cm3 per eight hour period would be set;

  • companies would be required to leave undamaged asbestos in place, but, where asbestos is removed, they should have the necessary skills and equipment; and

  • the requirements regarding training would be more comprehensive, and the period for which registers and medical records would have to be kept would be extended from 30 to 40 years.

The Government's view

  17.5  In his Explanatory Memorandum of 9 October 2001, the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Alan Whitehead) says that the UK fully supports these efforts to refocus the Directive on to those workers who are currently most at risk, and that the amendments proposed will support the UK's own efforts to impose a duty to manage asbestos in buildings. He says that full compliance with this duty, together with the requirements in the proposed Directive, will significantly reduce the risks from exposure to asbestos.

  17.6  However, the Minister does identify a number of concerns, notably:

  • an exemption based on exposure of less than two hours would require full compliance with the Directive after this length of time, even if the level of exposure was below the limits laid down, whereas the UK believes that the latter should be the deciding factor;

  • whilst the UK fully supports the proposal for a single exposure limit of 0.1 fibres per cm3, it would prefer to see this related to a four hour period, rather than the eight hours proposed, on the grounds that the latter approach could mean workers being exposed to higher concentrations during part of that time but still complying with the limit over the full period: it believes that risk would be reduced if the time limit were to be four hours; and

  • there are several areas where references in the Directive to "reasonably practicable" have been replaced by the need to "reduce to a minimum": the Minister says that this would cause difficulties in the UK, where legal provisions are interpreted literally, rather than on the Continental principles of proportionality.

  17.7  The Minister has also attached to his Explanatory Memorandum a Regulatory Impact Assessment. This suggests that, as things stand, some 6,200 individuals would, as a result of exposure over the next 50 years, go on to develop a fatal asbestos-related disease over the next century. However, using current risk reduction values, the benefits of a total elimination have been calculated as at least £3.75 billion in present value terms, of which some £2.2 billion would be related to occupational exposure. Total costs to industry over the next 50 years are put at around £2.25 billion, in present value terms, of which nearly half (£1.1 billion) would arise as a result of more stringent controls, with the other main items being training (£620 million) and medical surveillance (£500 million). However, the Minister points out that the majority of these costs are for compliance with provisions which are already in UK law, and that the additional costs as a result of this proposal would be small.


  17.8  We welcome this proposal to align the protective measures in Directive 83/477/EEC to the risks most likely to arise in future. However, we note that its main effect would be to apply within the Community as a whole measures which already apply to a large degree within the UK, and that the additional costs and benefits of its adoption in this country are thus likely to be small. In view of this, we are clearing it.

45   OJ No. L 263, 24.9.83, p.25. Back

46   In an eight hour reference period: 0.5 fibres per cm3 for crocidolite, and 1.0 fibres per cm3 for other asbestos. Back

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