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Mario van Mierlo; working towards a sustainable exposure limit policy

Column from the ‘Asbestfeiten Magazine special edition’ with Mario van Mierlo - Secretary of the VNO-NCW and member of the SER subcommittee on Occupational Exposure Limits.

There was a time when asbestos was considered an ideal product to work with. However, it turned out to have life-threatening properties. Hazard symbols with skulls on them, men in white suits and signs reading ‘access prohibited’ are all associated with the world of asbestos. The material is now banned in the Netherlands. The SER has advised strict limit values for both chrysotile and amphibole asbestos. What is the guiding principle here? The aim is to realize an achievable limit value that is also measurable. A limit value that is unachievable and, in addition, unmeasurable, cannot be defined and put into action. Whether and how these strict limit values can be achieved must be proven in practice. For this, an accurate monitoring programme is necessary. Based on the results of this programme, we can determine how people in the field are adapting to the new standards.

Strict standards serve to protect the health of employees. Naturally, it is important that this policy can be upheld. This doesn’t just apply to asbestos, but to all materials that have limit values. The Netherlands isn’t alone in this. A sustainable limit value policy is being developed on a European scale: a European level playing field. During the Dutch presidency of the European Union, employers and employees agreed to work on this together within Europe. A ‘roadmap’ has been drawn up as a guideline. If you are interested, you can find it on the Ministry of Social Affairs and Employment’s Inspection website.

‘Creating safe work practices, with employees being exposed to as few hazards as possible, is a step-by-step process’

But that’s not enough. Where the asbestos sector is required to comply with standards, inspection bodies are required to provide expert supervision and enforcement. This applies in particular to heavy asbestos removal in current risk class 2A. Supervision and enforcement aren’t enough by themselves. Increasingly better results can be achieved if the results are shared with the sector and help shape policy. This can help take steps in the right direction.

As the roadmap suggests, creating safe work practices, with employees being exposed to as few hazards as possible, is a step-by-step process. The process is characterized by agreements being made between employees, employers and the government. Without respecting the process, or by ignoring results thereof, strides become little steps, or the whole thing will even grind to a halt. This is unacceptable. If norms do not have an expert and scientific basis, recommendations will lose their meaning. This too is unacceptable. The balance lies in what is reasonable and resolutely doing what is possible.