Despite the ocean between us and the economic growth of Asia, Europe is the USA’s largest trading partner. Although it represents the “old country” or “old countries” to many Americans, it is undergoing constant change as a geopolitical area. Much of that change has a direct effect on American EHS professionals.

Membership in the European Union (EU) has gone from 15 to 25 countries in the past couple of years and will soon expand further to 27 countries. Membership allows countries to join a large trading block with the free movement of people, goods, services and capital between member countries. To become members, countries must meet various criteria such as having a stable democratic government, a good human rights record, a properly functioning market economy and macroeconomic fitness.

One of the other requirements of membership is having the capacity to fulfill and implement EU legislation, which includes a considerable number of EHS-related laws and regulations. We’ll take a closer look at some of the recent regulatory developments that are likely to impact U.S. companies either doing business in Europe or with European companies.

Physical Agent Directives

A series of EU directives called the Physical Agent Directives have recently been passed. There are separate directives on vibration, noise, electromagnetic fields (EMF), and optical radiation. Member countries have four years to incorporate EU directives into national legislation; the vibration directive had to be law EU-wide as of last year, and the noise directive this year. The EMF directive will come on line in a few years, as will the optical radiation directive.

The format of the directives are the same: they require risk assessments for the respective hazards, provide action levels and exposure limits, require that identified risks be controlled and that workers be informed of the risks and trained to reduce them. The emphasis is on protecting the worker by control at source, giving collective protection measures preference over individual measures — invoking the hierarchy of control familiar to EHS professionals world-wide. Appropriate health surveillance must be made available when action or limit values are exceeded. In line with the strength of unions in Europe, consultation and participation of workers or of their representatives is called for in each directive.

ThePhysical Agents (Vibration) Directive (2002/44/EC)was the first of the series and covers both hand-arm and whole-body vibration and provides action values and “not to exceed” limit values, both standardized over 8 hours (A(8)). It requires that a risk assessment to assess the likelihood of exposures above the action level be conducted and exposure to be reduced to a minimum with information and training provided to exposed workers. A program of measures to reduce exposure and the provision of appropriate health surveillance must be provided when exposure reaches the exposure action value. The “Vibration exposure values” box (Table 1) provides the exposure action and limit values. The values are based on measurements that are the sum of vibrations measured in three different directions (x axis, y axis and z axis), a departure from the common earlier practice of basing measurements on the axis of maximum magnitude.

Table 1. Vibration exposure values

Hand-arm exposure values:
  • Action value: 2.5 m/s2
  • Limit value: 5.0 m/s2

Whole-body exposure values:
  • Action value: 0.5 m/s2
  • Limit value: 1.15 m/s2

ThePhysical Agents (Noise) Directive (2003/10/EC)was the next in the series and imposes similar requirements. The directive provides upper and lower action values along with an exposure limit value, both as 8-hour averages for time-varying exposures and as peak values for impulsive exposures. The “Noise exposure values” box (Table 2) provides the exposure action and limit values. The directive requires assessments of noise exposure where personnel are or are likely to be exposed to noise above the lower action level. Noise reduction is to be done preferentially by elimination at source, but in any case by reduction to a minimum.

Training and the provision of information to workers is required above the lower action level and ear protection zones with appropriate signage are required above the upper action level. Hearing protectors must be provided at the lower action level and their use is required at the upper action level. Exposures above the upper action limit entitle the worker to health surveillance, such as audiometric testing. The exposure limit value is the “not to be exceeded level” at the ear.

Table 2. Noise exposure values

Lower exposure action values:
  • 80 dB(A) 8 hour average
  • 135 dB(C) peak

Upper exposure action values:
  • 85 dB(A) 8 hour average
  • 137 dB(C) peak

Exposure limit values:
  • 87 dB(A) 8 hour average
  • 140 dB(C) peak

ThePhysical Agents (Electromagnetic Fields) Directive (2004/40/EC)is based on the prevention of induced electric currents, shocks, burns and the absorption of thermal energy. The directive doesn’t address the risks resulting from contact with live conductors or suggested long-term effects. The exposure levels are based on the values incorporated in guidelines issued by the International Commission on Non-ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP).

Like the previous directives, it has requirements for an exposure risk assessment, exposure reduction, provision of information and training to workers, along with health surveillance to those exposed above action levels. It acknowledges that interference problems with medical devices such as metallic prostheses, cardiac pacemakers and defibrillators may occur at levels below the action values and should be subject to more stringent precautions and protective measures than called for in the directive.

ThePhysical Agents (Artificial Optical Radiation) Directive (2006/25/EC)has recently been enacted. There was considerable controversy as the draft legislation didn’t have the word “artificial” which had huge implications for agriculture and in the sunny Mediterranean area. The final version is aimed at preventing eye and skin damage from artificial light sources in the visible, infrared and ultraviolet regions and covers devices such as lasers. The same provisions regarding risk assessments, etc., are incorporated.

All of these regulations have the potential to impact U.S. companies. Equally important, they represent the same principles of recognition, evaluation and control familiar to American EHS professionals.