Select Committee on European Scrutiny Thirty-Fifth Report





Proposed amendments to the Council's Common Position on a draft 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


Document originated:

3 May 2002

Deposited in Parliament:

15 May 2002


Office of the Deputy Prime Minister

Basis of consideration:

EM of 22 May 2002

Previous consideration:

None; but see footnotes

Committee's assessment:

Politically important

Committee's decision:

Cleared, but information on progress requested




    1. Council Directive 89/391/EEC[49] 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[50] 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. A previous Committee considered this proposal, and a subsequent version produced in July 1994[51] following the Opinion of the European Parliament, on a number of occasions, but made no recommendation for its further consideration.
    2. The German Presidency in 1999 subsequently put forward an amended draft, 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 a draft text[52] from the Swedish Presidency dealing with noise. The intention was that this should replace the existing Council Directive (86/188/EEC)[53], which protects workers from the risks associated with exposure to noise at work. In particular, where average daily exposure exceeds a lower limit of 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 an upper limit of 90 dB, ear protectors must be worn and the areas in question must be both clearly signed and subject to restricted access.
    3. The main effect of the Presidency text would have been to reduce the level of exposure at which these measures would have to be taken. As a result, the obligation to inform and train workers would have arisen when the average exposure exceeded 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 have been reduced from 90 to 85 dB. The Presidency text also introduced a new requirement under which workers exposed to noise above 80 dB would have to be included in routine health surveillance programmes.
    4. The UK has supported 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, and, although the Government says that 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 with the magnitude of the hazard diminishing rapidly below 90 dB. On that basis, it considers that compliance with the existing Directive should over time lead to significant reductions in noise-induced hearing damage, and consequently takes the view that priority should be given to encouraging better compliance, rather than seeking to tighten existing standards and legislation. It therefore did not regard the Presidency proposal as proportionate, and said that it intended to try and reduce the costs of the measure.
    5. In their Report of 4 April 2001, our predecessors noted the Government's view, and the apparently large difference between the possible costs of the measure and its potential benefits. Consequently, although they recognised that it was for the Government to take a view on where the balance should lie, 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.
    6. We first considered the proposal on the basis of a letter of 3 July 2001from the Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State at the Department of Transport, Local Government and the Regions (Mr Alan Whitehead). This said that the Swedish Presidency had pressed ahead rapidly with negotiations, and had succeeded in its aim of reaching political agreement on a common position at the Employment and Social Policy Council on 11 June 2001, incorporating the changes set out in paragraph 40 of our Report of 18 July 2001. In the light of this information, we decided to clear the proposal.
    7. The current document

    8. The current document sets out the Commission's response to the amendments to the Council's Common Position proposed by the European Parliament at its second reading on 13 March 2002, and is the subject of an Explanatory Memorandum of 22 May 2002 from the Minister.
    9. He says that many of the Parliament's amendments which the Commission is prepared to accept are minor, and could be supported by the UK. However, he indicates that the Government does not support the position of the Commission in accepting two of the amendments. The first would leave the upper exposure action level expressed as an average unchanged, but would reduce the corresponding peak exposure level from 200 pascals to 112 pascals, whilst the second would provide workers with the right to an audiometric examination at the lower action value. The Minister says that there is virtually no health risk at 200 pascals, so that the proposed reduction in the peak exposure action level (which, in decibel terms, is considerably less dramatic than it appears) would produce no benefit. Similarly, as the Government considers there is virtually no risk to hearing at the lower action value, it considers there is no need for potentially very costly audiometric examinations.
    10. In his Explanatory Memorandum, the Minister indicated that the period for the Council's second reading of the proposal, including the European Parliament's amendments, could extend until 12 July. If there are then still differences between the Council and Parliament, the matter will be referred to conciliation.
    11. Conclusion

    12. We have noted the present situation, and in particular the UK's reservations about the changes proposed by the European Parliament in the peak upper action limit and on the right to an audiometric test at the lower action value. Whilst we do not think these would justify our maintaining a scrutiny reserve on this document, particularly at this late stage, we think it right to draw these differences to the attention of the House, and we would be grateful if the Minister could keep us informed of any subsequent developments.


49   OJ No. L 183, 29.6.89, p.1. Back

50   (14430) 5059/93; see HC 79-xxv (1992-93), paragraph 5 (21 April 1993). Back

51   (15504) 8392/94; see HC 48-xxvi (1993-94), paragraph 11 (19 October 1994). Back

52   (22228) - ; see HC 28-xi (2000-01), paragraph 7 (4 April 2001) and HC 152-i (2001-02), paragraph 40 (18 July 2001). Back

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

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