Tens of thousands of deaths in Europe are caused each year by exposure of workers to hazardous chemicals.
The ‘REACH’ Regulation is the European Union’s flagship measure to protect workers, the public and the environment from the effects of dangerous chemicals. In force since June 2007, the rules need strengthening and updating to address new challenges and the weaknesses that have been identified. But that revision, originally planned for 2022, has stalled, and European trade unions are alarmed.
Earlier this year, the European Trade Union Confederation (ETUC), together with IndustriAll Europe and the European Federation of Public Service Unions (EPSU)—the union bodies representing industrial and public-service workers respectively—wrote to the European Commission to protest about the delay. The legislative process must start by the end of this year if the much-needed update is to be put in place before the June 2024 European Parliament elections. Yet today, the commission’s work programme for 2024 will be published without it.
Strengthening REACH (Registration, Evaluation, Authorisation and Restriction of Chemicals) is part of the EU’s 2019 European Green Deal, which includes a commitment to achieving zero pollution and a toxic-free environment. In October 2020, as part of the Green Deal, the commission published its Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability towards a Toxic-Free Environment, setting its sights on better protection for people and the environment, and encouraging innovation to develop safe and sustainable alternatives.
REACH revision has social, environmental and economic importance. It is vital to protect the health, safety and job security of workers, promote a competitive industrial policy and strategic autonomy, further sustainable-development objectives and harmonised global standards, and meet the EU’s green targets.
In 2021 the commission produced its ‘roadmap’ for revision and invited feedback. In its response, the ETUC affirmed: ‘The European Green Deal presents a unique opportunity for the EU to radically scale up and speed up actions to protect its citizens and ecosystems from the risks of exposure to hazardous chemicals … EU decision-makers must seize this opportunity to set Europe on the road to a non-toxic and healthy future by improving REACH, the main piece of EU legislation on the use and marketing of chemical substances.’
The commission’s own impact assessment had already identified a series of problems, including gaps in knowledge about many substances. The information required does not allow for a full assessment of risks such as carcinogenicity, neurotoxicity, immunotoxicity and disruption to the endocrine system. Safety assessments do not take account of the combined impact of a range of chemicals: workers and the environment are exposed to a plethora of different substances from different sources. Communication up and down supply chains on risk management lacks accuracy and clarity.
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Moreover, control and enforcement is not equally effective in all member states, leading to inconsistency. And the import of products from outside the EU that may not comply with EU law, including via consumers’ online purchases, is a growing challenge for workers and their industries—lowering standards and generating unfair competition.
The ETUC has highlighted compelling reasons for an urgent and comprehensive REACH revision. Trade unionists in European workplaces are best placed to understand the dangers. The use of chemicals takes a heavy toll on workers in all sectors: exposure to hazardous substances causes up to 30 per cent of recognised occupational diseases and tens of thousands of preventable deaths each year, generating wide social inequalities in health and wellbeing.
To combat this, REACH should work in synergy with legislation on occupational safety and health, connecting EU and national authorities and ensuring a more efficient exchange of scientific data. Trade unions should be included on the national technical co-ordination committees responsible for implementing regulations, and workers’ safety representatives should be involved in obligatory risk assessment at company and workplace levels.
The ETUC is calling for more data on critical hazards and the effects of exposure to multiple substances—on human health and the environment—by including a mixture-assessment factor in REACH. Rules and procedures should be simplified and streamlined, with more rapid and transparent risk evaluation.
We need more precise information to identify all chemicals which are carcinogenic, mutagenic, toxic-for-reproduction (CMR) or neurotoxic, as well as endocrine disruptors. The same applies to substances which are persistent, bioaccumulative and toxic (PBT) or very persistent and very bioaccumulative (vPvB), in addition to the persistent, mobile and toxic (PMT) which accumulate in water. Risks linked to nanomaterials, endocrine disruptors and allergens need to be better understood and polymers covered by the regulation. Exposure to ‘forever chemicals’ (PFAS), which do not break down in the environment or the body, endangers workers and consumers and demands further restriction.
Another challenge is that REACH does not yet allow for new substances of very high concern (SVHC) to be identified, because companies fail to update their dossiers and the quality of data is highly variable. All new chemicals on the European market should undergo comprehensive testing and the regulation should be extended to substances used in small quantities. The concept of ‘essential use’ needs to be re-examined and clarified, to avoid misuse by industry, with a screening process to evaluate safety.
The ETUC wants mechanisms to revoke registration numbers when companies fail to meet REACH requirements. National authorities must also increase their resources for labour inspections and effective enforcement.
Some chemicals are an unavoidable feature of modern life but, where they also pose risks, the regulation should do more to promote safe alternatives. For example, companies should be required to provide the European Chemicals Agency (ECHA) with a substitution plan once one of their chemicals is placed on the Candidate List of SVHC. The substitution plan, including an analysis of alternatives—the definition of which also needs clarified—should be mandatory in the application for authorisation for use. These plans also need better scrutiny.
Trade unions played a major part in the arduous negotiations that led up to the adoption of REACH, fighting tirelessly for a safer environment for workers and their families. The regulation has had a major impact on workers’ and public safety. It applies to all chemical substances, including those in products we use in our day-to-day lives—for example, for cleaning, paints, clothes, furniture and electrical appliances.
By the end of the registration period in 2018, more than 21,000 substances produced in or imported into Europe in quantities of more than one tonne per year had been registered. Following the addition of nine more hazardous chemicals to the Candidate List in January 2023, and another two in June, REACH now covers 235 chemicals that can be harmful to people or the environment.
The regulation places the burden of proof on companies, which have to identify and manage the risks linked to the substances they manufacture and market in the EU, demonstrate to the ECHA how these can be safely used and communicate to users how they manage the risks. Under workplace legislation, it is the employer’s duty to carry out a risk assessment and ensure that workers are protected and provided with information, personal equipment, guidance and training on the safe use of chemicals.
Without a fully functioning REACH regulation, lives and health are at risk. The ETUC and its trade union partners are urging the commission to make swift and ambitious revision a priority—to meet the concerns and needs of workers across the EU, protect the environment and save lives.
Giulio Romani was elected confederal secretary of the European Trade Union Confederation at its congress in Berlin in May 2023. Previously, he was confederal secretary of the Confederazione Italiana Sindacati Lavoratori in Italy, having played a range of roles with CISL since 1996.