Protecting people from cancer-inducing chemicals at work

Cancer is linked to more than half of work-related deaths in the EU. Learn about the EU rules to protect people from carcinogens in the workplace.

Pest control worker spraying pesticides
The Parliament wants to ensure people can work in safe conditions ©AP Images/European Union-EP

The EU has adopted rules that aim to reduce the risk of workers getting seriously sick. These rules limit the exposure to a range of harmful substances, with the list being regularly reviewed and updated. There are also specific rules to better protect workers against asbestos.

Regulating dangerous substance in the workplace

To further reduce the risk of workers getting sick, MEPs voted in favour of updating EU rules on limiting harmful substances in the workplace on 17 February 2022. The rules expand the scope of the directive on carcinogens or mutagens at work to include substances harmful to reproductive health.

The rules set exposure limits for acrylonitrile and nickel compounds and a lower exposure limit for existing substance benzene. Parliament reached an agreement with the Council to include the requirement that healthcare workers who deal with hazardous products are better trained and have asked the European Commission to come up with a list of products and guidelines for handling them by the end of 2022.

Read more on how the EU is fighing cancer

In 2017,  MEPs set exposure limits on 11 additional carcinogens during the first revision of the 2004 directive to limit harmful substances in the workplace.

In 2018, they adopted even stricter rules, including exposure limit values for eight additional cancer-causing substances, whether inhaled or handled. These substances included diesel fumes and used engine oil. It will also include skin notations for these substances, which are used to warn against the potential health effects associated with skin penetration.

In 2019. rules were updated again to add exposure limits for five chemicals used in sectors such as nickel-cadmium battery manufacturing, zinc and copper smelting, laboratories, electronics, funerals, construction, healthcare, plastics and recycling sectors.

Carcinogens and mutagens

  • Chemical agents that may cause cancer or genetic mutations

Better protection from asbestos

More than 70,000 people die in the EU every year due to exposure to asbestos.

Parliament adopted rules that reduce the maximum level of exposure to asbestos in October 2023. The aim of the legislation is to protect EU workers and it is based on a provisional agreement MEPs reached with the Council in June 2023.

The exposure limit at work will be ten times lower as the limit value will be decreased from 0.1 to 0.01 fibres of asbestos per cubic centimetre (cm³). No transition period is foreseen.

After six years, EU countries will have to switch to more modern and sensitive technology that can detect thinner fibres, known as electron microscopy. Parliament called for a European strategy for the removal of all asbestos and improvement of the existing rules in a resolution adopted in October 2021.

Cancer in the workplace


Cancer is the number one cause of work-related deaths in the EU. Every year 53% can be linked to cancer, 28% to circulatory diseases and 6% to respiratory diseases. The most common types of work-related cancers are lung cancer, mesothelioma (caused by exposure to asbestos particles) and bladder cancer. According to the World Health Organization, one in ten lung cancer deaths is closely related to workplace risks.


Sectors that are especially affected are the construction sector, chemicals manufacturers, automotive and furniture industries, food producers, textiles manufacturers, the wood working industry and the healthcare sector.