Legislation to Protect Workers From Mechanical Vibrations Approved

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Bureau of National Affairs

Summary Statement

News report about European parliament approving legislation to protect workers from mechanical vibrations.
November 1, 2001

Reproduced with permission from Occupational Safety & Health Reporter, Volume 31, No.43, page 1009, November 1, 2001.
Copyright 2001 by The Bureau of National Affairs, Inc.

STRASBOURG, France--Legislation designed to protect millions of workers in Europe from exposure to harmful mechanical vibrations was approved by the European Parliament Oct 23.

However, the parliament's vote challenged moves by ministers representing individual governments to delay full implementation of the measure for up to nine years.

Ministers must now decide whether to concede to the parliament's demands or to engage in conciliation negotiations, which are time-limited to six months, on the final details of the legislation.

A report from the parliament's Committee on Employment and Social Affairs cites estimates by the EU Agency for Health and Safety at Work that 24 percent of European workers are exposed to mechanical vibrations at work, particularly in mining and extraction industries, construction, manufacturing, and transport industries.

The European Commission--the EU's executive body--proposes limits for two categories of vibration: hand-arm vibration, which can lead to conditions including loss of feeling in the fingers, permanently impaired feeling and grip, and pain in the shoulders and limbs; and whole-body vibration, which can contribute to back problems and premature degeneration of the spinal column

National Differences

The debate over whether to enact legislation that requires earlier reductions in exposure or to delay implementation reflects differences in the way individual states have addressed the problem. Of the 15 EU states, 9 have either adopted national rules or favor EU regulation. Germany and Denmark are seen as having the most advanced legislation. Other states, including the UK, still question the practicality of enforcing tight limits.

As a concession to its skeptical members, the EU Council of Ministers is seeking transition periods for implementation of the law. Some of the longest deferrals relate to use of equipment in agriculture and forestry.

Danish deputy Helle Thorning-Schmidt, spokeswoman for the employment committee, accepted that work equipment in these sectors might be replaced at a slower rate than in other sectors, but she viewed the transition periods as "unjustifiable"--not least in light of technical developments in the decade since the commission began drafting its proposals.

A five-year maximum transition period would be "sufficient," in her view.

The parliament's plenary vote backed that view--and also called for limits on whole-body vibration which would be more demanding than those specified in the current draft, by reference to ISO standards.

Evidence of Risk Questioned

Those opposed to tougher limits on whole-body vibrations questioned the scientific evidence of risk--and warned of dire consequences for industry.

British Liberal Liz Lynne claimed that harvest operations on European farms would be disrupted because tractor drivers would be limited to operating between two to four hours in any eight-hour period.

She also warned of "tremendous problems ... in engineering, mining, and construction."

But a majority of members backed the view that the EU has been too slow in tackling workplace exposure to physical agents in general.

British Labor member Stephen Hughes said that ideas on legislating against exposure to vibrations had been around since 1986 when framework legislation on physical agents was adopted along with detailed legislation on noise hazards.

"Noise [legislation] was due to be reviewed in 1991," he said. "Here we are, 10 years later, and no revision ... has been made."

Employment and Social Affairs Commissioner Anna Diamantopoulou promised that once the vibrations directive is cleared, she would "push ahead" with further proposals on exposure to electromagnetic field and waves, optical radiation, and updated proposals on noise.

For details of the vibration exposure limits in the current draft compared with those demanded by the parliament, see Amendment 2 of the legislative vote on https://osha.europa.eu/en/legislation/directives/19.

The European Parliament in October 2001 approved legislation to limit exposures of construction workers and others to mechanical vibration, including hand-arm and whole-body vibration (WBV). PDF can be found here: http://www.europarl.europa.eu/commonpositions/2001/pdf/c5-0293-01_en.pdf