Decarbonisation and occupational safety and health

The EU has set ambitious climate goals to become the first climate-neutral continent by 2050, with decarbonisation and the reuse of critical materials being two key objectives. While these aspirations are commendable, they present significant challenges in terms of occupational safety and health.

On one hand, the Green Deal strongly focusses on the phase-out of substances that are harmful to human health and the environment. On the other hand, the reuse of materials and the production of new energy sources, such as batteries for electromobility and wind turbines, involve the handling of hazardous, and at times carcinogenic substances. Taking into account these implications that come alongside ensuring the climate goals, it is crucial that new jobs in a circular (green) economy prioritize safety and sustainability, particularly concerning occupational health and safety.

Conflicting Goals

An example of these concerns can be seen in the EU battery regulation. The EU aims to increase the collection of (small) batteries, thus increasing the presence of recycled cobalt (carcinogenic), lead (toxic for reproduction), lithium (toxic for reproduction), and nickel (carcinogenic, mutagenic, and toxic for reproduction) in new batteries. With an estimated 800,000 qualified employees in the EU working in the near future in the battery production (as per the Net Zero Industry Act), it is crucial that companies in this sector implement due diligence policies and try to substitute the hazardous substances. In addition, national competent authorities will have the power to, and should initiate restrictions, for certain uses, similar to those outlined in the REACH-regulation.

Reparability and reuse

Many raw materials used in products and energy systems, such as smartphones and solar panels, are hazardous when workers are exposed. Because of the limited quantities of these materials and to minimize unnecessary hazardous waste, the EU encourages and enforces companies to make products repairable and to reuse materials at the end of a product’s life cycle. An industry to execute this will develop, in which exposure to hazardous substances poses a serious risk. It is imperative that the safety and health of these workers are adequately addressed.

Development and extraction of strategic raw materials in the EU

Employees may be exposed to hazardous substances not only during the collection and reuse of raw materials, but also during the extraction process in mining, which is known for its potential exposure to hazardous and carcinogenic substances. The EU aims to reduce its dependence on other countries for certain raw materials and has established a framework to ensure a secure and sustainable supply of critical and strategic raw materials. Goals have been set to 10% extraction in EU, 40% processing capacity, 25% recycling and no more than 65% of the EU’s annual consumption from a single third country. Further to the efforts in recycling these goals imply an expansion of mining activities within the EU.

Strategic raw materials EU

Strategic raw materialRepresentative substanceCMR-classification
BoratBoric acid (10043-35-3)toxic for reproduction
GalliumGalliumarsenide (1303-00-0)toxic for reproduction
GermaniumGermaniumdioxide (1310-53-8)toxic for reproduction
CobaltCobalt(II)carbonate (513-79-1)carcinogen, toxic for reproduction
Rare earths (for magnets)
LithiumLithiumcarbonate (554-13-2)toxic for reproduction (under discussion)
Metals of Platinum-groupe
Natural Graphite
NickelNickelsulfate (7786-81-4)carcinogen, mutagen, toxic for reproduction
Silicon Metal
TitaniumTitaniumdioxide (13463-67-7)carcinogon (judicial view)
Reference: Packroff, R., Clever, M., Reese, J.; Sicher ist Sicher, 11/2023, p.493-499

Safe and sustainable chemicals and materials by design

In addition to the challenges around hazardous raw materials, the design of new chemicals, materials and products must be considered. Here, the Chemicals Strategy for Sustainability (CSS) focuses on innovation for the safe and sustainable production of chemicals in the EU. One important group of materials are man-made-fibers of different scale. Within this context inhalable dusts from fibers that meet the so-called ‘WHO criteria’ poses a high carcinogenic potential. While a safe design of many kinds of fibers is technically achievable, material scientists and engineers need to be aware of potential health risks. Possibly the best way to raise awareness is to integrate information on potential health risks of material design in their education.

• For further information about carcinogenic substances, have a look at the factsheets.
• For further information about raw materials, including health risks, consult the Raw Materials Information System (RMIS).

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