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MEPs demand better protection for workers from toxic substances and urge EU to assess safety of mineral wool

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At the end of March, the Employment and Social Affairs Committee of the European Parliament voted unanimously (with six abstentions) for stricter EU rules to better protect workers from exposure to carcinogens, mutagens and reprotoxic substances, writes Martin Banks.

This 4th revision of the EU Directive 2004/37 on carcinogens and mutagens at work (CMD), proposed by the European Commission, would add limit values for two carcinogens and revise the limit value downwards for another one. 

It targets cancer as the primary cause of work-related deaths in the EU. Annually, 52% of occupational deaths are attributed to cancer. Exposure at work accounts for 5.3%-8.4 % cases of cancer and is responsible for approximatively 120,000 cancers diagnosed and more than 100,000 deaths every year. 

The most common types of occupational cancer are lung cancer and mesothelioma, the cancer of the thin layer of tissue that covers many of the internal organs (caused by exposure to asbestos particles).

The Parliamentarians voted to extend the scope of the CMD to reprotoxic substances, which negatively affect fertility. They demanded that the Commission puts forward an action plan on these substances before the end of 2021. Furthermore, they also want the Commission to set up an action plan for the adoption of 25 additional occupational exposure limits for carcinogens by the end of 2021, and to propose guidelines to better protect workers from cocktail effects of carcinogens by December 2022.

Tony Musu, from the European Trade Union Institute (ETU), told this site, "With this overwhelming vote, the European Parliament is sending a strong signal to the European Commission and the Member States on the need to thoroughly improve the existing legislation in order to boost the fight against occupational cancers in Europe".

One substance, which construction workers as well as do-it-yourself enthusiasts are regularly exposed to, and which merits assessment according to a recent study, is mineral wool. Mineral wool insulation has been the subject of  health concerns for some years, with fears that it potentially causes Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease, skin irritation and cancer. An new report has been published this year entitled Critical Choices in Predicting Stone Wool Biodurability: Lymsomal Fluid Compositions and Binder Effects.

The report appeared in Chemical Research and Toxicology and the authors are Ursula G Sauer, Kai Werle, Hubert Waindock, Sabine Hirth, Olivier Hachmoller and Wendel Wohlleben. The study confirms that the absence of the binder element had rendered previous studies misleading. It tested six mineral wool samples, which were representative of the products marketed to consumers, to show that the binder has actually a relevant effect on the testing. It found that commercial mineral wool was completely, but not necessarily uniformly, covered with binder. Removing the binder for testing accelerated the average dissolution rate by +104% to maximum + 273%, while its presence of the reduced dissolution rates. This adds to concerns that previous tests on mineral wool were misleading and did not fully reflect the dangers mineral wool could pose as the product was not tested as it is sold nor in the form that construction workers and homeowners actually encounter it. This refers to the lack of binders in previous testing.

The mineral wool industry maintains that there are no health risks associated with their product, with industry organization Eurima stating: “There is no evidence that exposure to mineral wool insulation causes chronic adverse effects. Peer-reviewed literature by the WHO and independent research conclude that there is no indication of a significant excess of respiratory symptoms or of a significant decrease in lung function reported for mineral wool workers.”

However, the 2021 study is clear that there has perhaps been a false sense of security around this insulation material and it seems likely parliamentarians will be taking a further look in order to understand the risks that European works and homeowners could be facing in order to protect them under the stricter European rules being developed.

EU

Parliament votes to take Commission to court over inaction on breaches of the rule of law

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Today (10 June), the European Parliament has voted (506 for, 150 against, 28 abstentions) on a resolution paving the way to bring the European Commission to the European Court of Justice for inaction over the rule of law, as called for by the Greens/EFA Group. The EU's Rule of Law Mechanism, which has been in place since 1 January this year, has yet to be triggered by the Commission over breaches of the rule of law that affect the EU's budget. The Parliament voted in March and gave the Commission a deadline of 1 June for the adoption of guidelines and the application of the mechanism. The Commission has missed this deadline and has yet to publish its 'guidelines' on how the mechanism should be triggered.

The resolution highlights that this a 'failure to act' by the EU Commission under Article 265 of the TFEU and is the first step in taking the Commission to court. Terry Reintke MEP (pictured), Greens/EFA negotiator and LIBE rapporteur on the Rule of Law Mechanism, said: "The EU needs a strong basis we can all stand on, which is spelled out in the treaties: democracy, rule of law and fundamental rights. But this is under attack and being dismantled as we speak. Instead of defending European values, the Commission is watching, writing reports and sitting on its hands. The rule of law needs action now. Unfortunately, it's clear from yesterday's debate in Parliament that the Commission doesn't seem to feel the same sense of urgency to act.

"People in Poland, Hungary and elsewhere need to know that the Commission is on their side and will fight for their rights as EU citizens. The Commission should not need pressure to act on defending the treaties, but if they keep refusing to act, pressure is what they will get. We are taking action against the Commission to make them do their job and defend the rights of European citizens. We, as the Parliament, will not allow the Commission to sit idly by as far-right populist governments rip apart the rule of law in Europe."

Daniel Freund MEP, Greens/EFA negotiator on the Rule of Law Mechanism, said: "The Rule of law Mechanism isn't just some shiny souvenir from a hard-wrung struggle in the Council last winter; it's a real tool with real world applications and real sanctions. First the Commission claimed they didn't have the tools to fight the rule of law, but now that we have the tool, it's time to use it. There are clear examples of breaches of the rule of law that are taking place as we speak, without any need for 'guidelines' to start proceedings. Attacks against NGOs, media freedom and 'foundations' set up to avoid scrutiny over the use of EU funds, all are cause for launching action in Hungary alone. These are attacks by Viktor Orbán on our rights, our values and our money as EU citizens.

"Inaction on the rule of law would be tantamount to accepting the fight for democracy is already lost in several member states. In six months, Hungarian citizens will go to the polls and they need to be able to vote under real democratic standards. We must make sure that Orbán isn't using EU money to steal the election, to control media coverage and ensure that the opposition cannot contest the election fairly. We don't have time to wait."

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coronavirus

EU Digital COVID Certificate: It’s now up to EU countries

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MEPs see the EU Digital COVID Certificate as a tool to restore freedom and urge EU countries to implement it by 1 July, Society.

The certificate aims to enable easier and  safer travel by proving someone has been vaccinated, had a negative COVID test or recovered from the disease. The infrastructure for it is in place and 23 countries are technically ready, with nine already issuing and verifying at least one type of certificate.

Restoring freedom of movement

In a plenary debate on 8 June, Juan Fernando López Aguilar (S&D, Spain), the lead MEP regarding the certificate, said that freedom of movement is highly prized by EU citizens and that the negotiations on the COVID Certificate "have been completed in record time”. “We want to send out the message to European citizens that we are doing everything we can to restore freedom of movement.”

Justice Commissioner Didier Reynders said: "The certificate, which will be free of charge, will be issued by all member states and will have to be accepted across Europe. It will contribute to a gradual lifting of restrictions."

Member states have to apply the rules

The COVID certificate is “the first step towards getting rid of restrictions and that is good news for many people in Europe - people who travel for work, families that live in border areas, and for tourism,” said MEP Birgit Sippel (S&D, Germany). She said it is now up to EU countries to harmonise the rules on travel.

“All citizens in the European Union rightfully expect to be able to use this system by the start of summer and member states must deliver,” said Jeroen Lenaers (EPP, the Netherlands). He said that this means not only the technical implementation of the certificate, but much more: “European citizens want to finally have some coordination and predictability on our internal borders.”

Sophie in ‘t Veld (Renew, Netherlands) called on member states to ensure that the EU reopens. “Europeans desperately want to regain their freedom. I think it is worthwhile remembering that it isn’t the virus that has taken away their right to free movement in Europe. It is actually the patchwork of national rules that makes it impossible for them to move around."

Respecting people's’ rights

Cornelia Ernst (The Left, Germany) said that it was chiefly Parliament and the Commission that defended people's rights during negotiations with member states: “We need to defend everyone’s freedoms - not just holidaymakers',” she said.

Tineke Strik (Greens/EFA, Netherlands) underlined the importance of non-discrimination and data protection and said this certificate fully respects these requirements. The member states should apply and implement this new harmonised system and MEPs will monitor that non-discrimination is respected, she said.

Joachim Stanisław Brudziński (ECR, Poland) said that the certificate “is supposed to facilitate free movement and not be a condition of it”. The people who have not been vaccinated would still have the right to move within Europe, with restrictions such as tests, self-isolation, or quarantine. He stressed that “this regulation cannot be seen as something that makes vaccines obligatory”.

Christine Anderson (ID, Germany) expressed doubts about whether the certificate could restore freedom of movement and respect people’s rights. She raised concerns that it would force people to be vaccinated. This could lead to having to have “a certificate to prove you’ve got rights”. This shouldn’t be a back door to requiring vaccination, she said.

Find out how to travel safely with the EU Digital COVID Certificate.

EU Digital COVID Certificate 

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EU

MEPs approve new Social Fund to support young people and the most deprived

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On Tuesday (8 June), Parliament gave its final green light to the EU’s main instrument for investing in people and tackling inequalities for the next seven years, PLENARY SESSION EMPL.

The European Social Fund+, with a total budget of €88 billion, will play an important role in the implementation of the action plan on the European Pillar of Social Rights and in countering the socio-economic effects of the pandemic.

Investing in children and youth

During the negotiations, Parliament secured more ambitious funding for investing in youth employment and combating child poverty, addressing two groups of people that have been particularly hard hit by the crisis.

Member states with an above EU-average percentage of young people not in employment, education or training (NEET) between 2017 and 2019 should devote at least 12.5% of their ESF+ resources to help them improve their skills or find a good quality job. Other member states should also dedicate resources to them, preferably by implementing the reinforced Youth Guarantee schemes.

On a similar basis, member states that had an above EU average percentage of children at risk of poverty or social exclusion between 2017 and 2019 should invest at least 5% of their programming resources in directly supporting children’s equal access to childcare, education, healthcare and decent housing. All member states are obliged to invest in combating child poverty.

“Today, we have adopted a balanced text and secured Parliament’s priorities. The ESF+ is the EU’s main instrument to build a more social and inclusive European Union. It is all the more crucial given the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic and will play an important role in the recovery. Parliament will now closely monitor the effective use of the ESF+ across the EU,” said David Casa (EPP, MT).

Supporting people who need it the most

At the Parliament’s initiative, at least a quarter of the funds will be dedicated to measures fostering equal opportunities for disadvantaged groups, including marginalised communities such as Roma and third-country nationals, to reduce barriers on the labour market, tackle discrimination and address health inequalities.

Among other funds, the current Fund for European Aid to the Most Deprived (FEAD) has been integrated into the new ESF+. Under the new rules, all member states will have to spend at least 3% of their funds on food and basic material assistance to address the forms of extreme poverty that contribute most to social exclusion.

Next steps

Following Parliament’s approval, the regulation will enter into force on the twentieth day following its publication in the Official Journal. The Employment and Social Innovation strand will apply retroactively.

Background

The new European Social Fund +, worth €87,995bn in 2018 prices, integrates the former European Social Fund, the Youth Employment Initiative (YEI), the Fund for European Aid to the most Deprived (FEAD) and the EU programme for Employment and Social Innovation (EaSI) into one fund.

More information

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