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Europe’s renovation wave risks exposing workers to asbestos

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When he was in his early thirties, Didier Faure was running marathons. At 37, he had trouble getting up a flight of stairs.

A former plumber in the construction industry, Faure is part of a generation of laborers exposed to asbestos — something he blames for his condition.

Widely used across Europe in the 1970s, the construction material was declared toxic and banned from use in the EU in 2005. It currently causes some 88,000 deaths in Europe each year, and is the bloc’s leading cause of work-related cancers.

Labor unions worry a whole new generation of builders will be exposed to the deadly substance as a result of the EU’s planned Renovation Wave — its bid to renovate 220 million buildings within 30 years on its way to reaching climate neutrality by 2050.

The effort aims to slash energy emissions, reduce energy poverty and create additional green jobs — but it will also mean disturbing countless asbestos-ridden buildings in the process, exposing construction workers to the banned carcinogen.

The European Commission is working on a proposal to boost protections for the bloc’s 15 million construction workers, but labor unions and the construction industry are coming to blows over how stringent those should be.

There’s no limit of asbestos that is safe, said Faure, now 56. In 2003 he was diagnosed with pleural plaques — areas of thickened tissue in the lung lining — and the chronic lung condition asbestosis, both of which are linked to asbestos exposure. He has trouble breathing and has given up on ever running again.

“Asbestos kills … you die 30 years later, 20 years later, 40 years later, you live with the illness until the end.”

Talking numbers 

Under current EU rules, the occupational exposure limit is 100,000 fibers per cubic meter. Employers have to make sure none of their workers are exposed to an airborne concentration above that level over eight hours. If the limit is breached, work cannot continue until “adequate” measures have been taken, such as hiring a specialist contractor to isolate or remove the hazard.

Associations like the European Federation of Building and Woodworkers and the European Trade Union Confederation want to see the limit brought down to 1,000 fibers per cubic meter, alongside additional measures like national asbestos removal plans and public asbestos registries.

“The higher the concentration in fibers that you allow, the higher the number of cancers you will get in workers,” said Tony Musu, a senior researcher at the European Trade Union Institute.

But the construction industry, concerned about feasibility and impact on business, doesn’t want to significantly lower the current limits.

Usually agreements over occupational limit values are struck through negotiations between employer associations, trade unions and EU countries in the Advisory Committee on Safety and Health, which feed into the Commission’s legislative proposal.

On asbestos, the three groups hit a roadblock in November and weren’t able to reach a compromise: EU countries and employer associations were only prepared to go down to 10,000 fibers per cubic meter.

“The discussion is extremely hot,” said Musu. “They talk about costs for companies, for building owners. We talk about costs for workers and their families.”

Musu and Faure have an ally in the European Parliament, which in October adopted a report calling for an update of the legal asbestos limit to 1,000 fibers per cubic meter. They also suggested additional measures from the Commission to reduce workers’ exposure to asbestos — introduce mandatory asbestos screenings, remove the substance from buildings before renovation works and improve access to compensation for asbestos victims.

“If we do not take sufficient action, people will die. A lot of workers will lose their life in the green transition,” said Nikolaj Villumsen, the Danish Left MEP who drafted the parliamentary report.

“This is, of course, unacceptable: We need to have an ambitious green transition and we need to make sure that the workers are properly protected.”

Industry’s reality check

Business owners in the construction sector are sounding the alarm that the push from labor groups and the Parliament could hamper the EU’s efforts to renovate its building stock.

The stricter proposed limits risk making renovations “an extremely expensive procedure,” said Fernando Sigchos of the European Builders Confederation, which represents SMEs in the construction sector. The equipment required to take such measurements is prohibitively expensive, he added. Properly isolating and disposing of asbestos, too, comes at a cost.

Sigchos argued the increased costs could lead to dodgy construction companies offering to take on those jobs for “half the price” and without the proper protections, undermining campaigners’ efforts.

It’s an argument echoed by the French Building Federation and Ceemet, an association for European technology and industry employers, which argue that the current EU legal framework for asbestos is “sufficient in terms of occupational safety and health legislation.”

Rather than impose stricter limits, the focus should be on supplementary measures, like specialized training sessions on asbestos protections for workers and supporting homeowners in assessing the presence of asbestos in their houses, said Sigchos.

He added that a meeting with the Commission in December left him confident that Brussels wants to be “as realistic as possible.”

Musu, from the European Trade Union Institute, said he worries the EU executive will side with the business groups. That means trade unions are relying on the Parliament to stick by its report and hold its own when it comes to negotiating with the Commission and the Council.

Villumsen, the MEP, said he is in discussions with both the Commission and with EU countries — some of which, he says, are “very positive” about his report.

“This should be a socially just transition,” he added. “We cannot turn a blind eye to the consequences of asbestos and, we really need to act.”

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