Occupational asbestos exposure: new rules from the EU

Last Updated on December 19, 2023

Asbestos is an extremely dangerous carcinogenic substance, unfortunately still present in some economic sectors. For this reason, the European Union has once again intervened with Directive No. 2668 of 22 November 2023, integrating and amending previous Directive 2009/148/EC, in order to ensure better protection for people who, during their work, are or may be exposed to dust from asbestos or materials containing this mineral.

Below is a summary of the main contents of the measure.

Protection and training

The main objective of the Directive is to avoid all forms of asbestos exposure, even those which do not result from direct handling of the material such as:

  • passive exposure, i.e. that of workers working alongside people using materials containing asbestos or in premises where this substance is present and deteriorating;
  • secondary exposure, i.e. that of persons exposed to fibres that workers take home on their hair or clothing.

Furthermore, there is zero tolerance for sporadic or low-intensity exposure, which previously justified exemption from certain obligations such as health surveillance and registration of workers in a special register. Workers who are or may be exposed to asbestos must also receive mandatory training, the content, duration and frequency of which are now specifically identified in the annex to the directive. This training, both theoretical and practical, must be provided by a qualified trainer, both at the beginning of the employment relationship and whenever specific needs are identified, and must cover any information useful for understanding the hazardous nature of this mineral as well as safe working procedures.

New limits

In order to reduce the likelihood of workers contracting asbestos-related occupational illnesses, the EU legislator proposes a revision of exposure limits and relevant measurement methods, also in view of the use of technologies more capable of detecting even the finest fibres in the air, such as electron microscopy (instead of the more commonly used optical microscopy). It is, in fact, expressly stated that employers shall ensure that no worker be exposed — for a reference period of eight hours — to an asbestos concentration exceeding 0.01 fibres/cm3 (instead of the hitherto maximum of 0.1) and that, by 21 December 2029, this maximum value be further reduced to 0.002 fibres/cm3, excluding fine fibres, or to 0.01 fibres/cm3, including fine fibres.

Exceeding these limits shall result in immediate cessation of work, which may only continue if appropriate measures are taken to protect the workers concerned.

Employer’s obligations

Companies’ obligations for the protection of exposed workers have also been partly revised, establishing more detailed prevention and protection measures, including the elimination, during work processes, of asbestos dust emissions into the air, an adequate decontamination procedure to which workers must be subjected, greater attention for work carried out in enclosed spaces, and additional disclosure obligations (by means of notification to the competent authority) which must be fulfilled before the start of activities.

In addition, the requirements for companies wishing to carry out demolition, maintenance or removal of asbestos in buildings dating back to before the relevant ban came into force (in Italy in the early 1990s) have been strengthened. It is stipulated that employers must obtain an ad hoc authorisation from the competent authority and take all necessary measures to detect the presence of this hazardous material, if necessary requesting information from the owners of the premises or from other companies, and, failing that, in any case ensuring that a qualified operator carries out an inspection to check for the presence of this carcinogen, obtaining the result before the start of activities. The absence of risks due to asbestos exposure in the workplace must be ascertained before activity is resumed.

In Italy

The Consolidated Law on health and safety in the workplace (Legislative Decree 81/2008) already contains specific provisions to protect workers exposed to asbestos, such as the obligation for companies to:

  • carry out a specific risk assessment and periodic monitoring of exposure;
  • adopt appropriate prevention, protection, training and information measures for exposed workers;
  • provide health surveillance for personnel involved in the maintenance and disposal of asbestos or materials containing it.

We must now await the transposition decree, to be adopted by 21 December 2025, to understand how the new provisions will be implemented in our country.

The issue of workers’ health and safety is of vital importance for companies wishing to pursue ethical and sustainable management in ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance) terms, which clearly calls for the adoption of all measures to protect workers, including those related to asbestos exposure.

Toffoletto de Luca Tamajo is at your disposal for any support or clarification you may need.

For further information: comunicazione@toffolettodeluca.it