European Week for Safety and Health at Work: focus on management of dangerous substances

European Week for Safety and Health at Work is actively under way this week with seminars, workshops and events across Europe. Organised every year by OSHA, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, the focus of the campaign in 2018 is to encourage the safe management of dangerous substances.

The exposure of workers to danger substances is more common than most people realise and, in fact, can occur in almost all workplaces, presenting major safety and health concerns.

A dangerous substance is anything that has the potential to cause damage to the safety or health of workers, by example through inhalation or skin penetration. Exposure to dangerous substances can be linked to acute and long-term health issues, such as respiratory diseases or skin irritation and diseases.

The Safety and Health at Work campaign serves as a reminder that we need to review carefully and monitor the health and safety of those who have to work with dangerous substances as a routine part of their employment.



One sector at risk to high levels of exposure are construction workers who have to install, remove and dispose of building insulation materials such as mineral wool (or MMVF – man made vitreous fibres).

The health concerns for workers handling mineral wool (MMVF), include exposure to carcinogens and lung disease, including Chronic Obstructive Pulmonary Disease (COPD).

When the asbestos industry collapsed due to the danger asbestos was assessed to have on human health, mineral wool (MMVF) emerged as a replacement insulation product. Mineral wool was classified as a carcinogen until 2002, when a newer version of it was declassified. However, it appears that the tests that led to this declassification were flawed. Tests in 1996 and 2000-2002 were not conducted with mineral wool in the form that it is sold or used by consumers or commercially; those tests were carried out with the binder or oil removed, giving misleading results regarding its carcinogenic values.

Dr. Marjolein Drent, professor of interstitial lung diseases (ild) at the Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology of the Faculty of Health, Medicine and Life Sciences (FHML) of Maastricht University, has stated, “The effects of the fibres of glass wool and stone wool can be compared to those of asbestos. In the past we did not know asbestos was very dangerous. The results of the effects of fibres in glass wool and mineral wool are only being seen right now, so we must deal with it carefully.”

Surely our building and construction workers deserve care and respect for their health, and for this very reason should we not seek the retesting of Mineral wool (MMVF) in the form that it is actually now sold and used by the workforce?

Henk Batema is a former construction worker who suffers from pulmonary fibrosis; his lung capacity has been reduced by 75% by the chronic disease. The damage to human lungs by the accumulation of dangerous fibres that have been inhaled over years is accumulative. Its effects cannot be reversed.

“Yes, well, I hope I can go on like this for years,” he says, “that it is stable and I can delay it as long as possible. Then I can just procrastinate. Otherwise the only option is a lung transplant in order to move forward. But after that your years are numbered of course.”

Health and safety legislation and product safety labelling is needed for mineral wool, so that construction workers can fully understand what they are handling and so that their employers are also better informed about the health risks to their workers and their own liabilities to take action to protect their staff properly.

A recent report published by EU Today publisher Gary Cartwright suggests that at the very least there should be a legal requirement for employers to enforce rules on the use of protective clothing by employees, and to educate them of the health risks of working with mineral wool.

Autumn is a time of year when the shortening days and longer nights mean that many home owners start to think about their heating costs, and their home insulation needs with the onset of winter. The OSHA campaign comes at a timely moment to remind us of our responsibilities to make informed choices about the methods and products that we purchase to make our home more energy efficient – and this includes the protection of the health and safety of the building and construction workers we employ.