Den Haag,

Toespraak staatssecretaris Van Ark op EU-werkconferentie over gevaarlijke stoffen


Tamara van Ark, State Secretary for Social Affairs and Employment, at the conference on ‘Working together on the future of the limit values system for carcinogens in Europe’, hosted by the Social and Economic Council, The Hague, 10 February 2020.

Ladies and gentlemen,

I’d like to thank the Social and Economic Council for hosting this conference. And for inviting me to speak to you today.

First, I want to stress the importance of this Council’s role.

In general, and on today’s subject. The fact that this conference is not organised by the government, but by an advisory body of employers, employees and independent experts, is by no means insignificant. On the contrary! It’s highly relevant to the topic being discussed today. It’s an example of how our ‘polder model’ works in The Netherlands.

The constant battle against water has shaped our landscapes, with its dykes and polders. But it has also shaped our society. The way in which we work closely together, and make decisions by consensus – that is what we call the ‘polder model’.

A day like today demonstrates the effectiveness of this model. Stakeholders – employers and employees – join forces to tackle a common problem.

Whether it’s the labour market, the pension system, or (today’s subject): exposure to hazardous substances at work; the polder model is a tried and trusted method that often results in a broadly supported solution.

It helps ensure a good outcome and good implementation. Ofcourse, this process works best when we all agree on the urgency of the problem. And when there’s a shared interest in tackling it.

Combating the effects of hazardous substances at work is such a problem. It’s a battle that we can only win by joining efforts and working together.

So it is great you are all here.

Ladies and gentlemen,

We’re here today to discuss the problem of people who get sick at work.

Worse still: who get sick because of their work.

Whether you’re an employee, an employer or an insurer: it is the last thing anyone wants.

So there’s a clear shared interest…

Wood dust, quartz dust and flour dust; diesel fumes and welding fumes; varnishes and solvents… Exposure to substances like this can have serious consequences. It can cause allergies, chronic diseases and cancer. It can even kill.

Hazardous substances can be silent killers. Because it often takes many years before the consequences of exposure become apparent.

And this might seem like a problem that belongs to a past century.

But unfortunately, it isn’t.

Let me give you some figures.

According to the International Labour Organization, 374 million people worldwide are injured or become sick at work each year.

Every day, 6,500 people die of work-related diseases.

In the Netherlands alone, 3,000 people a year die from diseases associated with occupational exposure to hazardous substances.

In 80 per cent of the cases, an employee doesn’t get sick until after retirement. Ofcourse, there are economic costs to this: a loss of 4 per cent of global GDP. In Europe, the figure is lower than that, at 3 per cent.

Yet, these are economic figures. These numbers don’t give us the full picture of the suffering and the grief. It’s exactly like an entrepreneur once said to me:

‘It’s not about the numbers. It’s about preventing suffering.

Each and every case is simply one too many.’

Carcinogens are a special category of hazardous substance.

The risk of getting sick per exposure is relatively small. But if you do get sick, the consequences could be very grave.

These are substances whose effects stay invisible for many years.

Until they take their brutal toll.

And they’re a multi-headed monster.

Last year, the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC)

published a poster[1] that illustrates with unnerving clarity the complexity of the problem: there are 28 types of cancer that you can get at work. And the number of substances that can cause them, is considerably higher…

Not only does this brutal monster have many heads. The heads are often also two-faced: the substances are dangerous, but in many cases, we need them. So simply banning them, isn’t always an option.

This means we need to talk about risks, and how to reduce them. Fortunately, there’s a lot of expertise on this subject.

It’s a shared responsibility, and government’s role is to set the rules and enforce them.

Limit values play a key role here. For most hazardous substances, companies themselves set limit values. And for some substances, the limits are set by government – in consultation with scientists and social partners.

It sounds simple, but it isn’t.

We need limit values that are acceptable to all stakeholders.

And it’s got to be enforceable, too. It’s a process in which risks are weighed against feasibility.

Dutch experts are here to tell you how this process works in the Netherlands. And we’re keen to learn from your experiences. What works? What doesn’t? The details of our approach will be set out in the roundtable discussions. But I can give you a rough outline.

We’ve divided the various responsibilities. The Health Council of the Netherlands focuses on risks. And the Social and Economic Council focuses on feasibility. We’re constantly working to fine-tune the system. Because setting a limit value isn’t enough.

The Dutch approach also leans heavily on the EU ‘STOP strategy’ to limit exposure to hazardous substances. STOP is an acronym for

  • Substitution,
  • Technical measures,
  • Organisational measures and
  • Personal protection.

In that order.

That looks good on paper. But it needs to be applied in the workplace. Fortunately, on my working visits around the country, I was pleased to see how many companies are in fact already doing this.

Some examples:

The garage company Ames uses an exhaust ventilation system to remove diesel exhaust fumes. (The T in STOP.)

Pon Logistics reduced the number of carcinogenic substances in one go from 66 to just 11. (The S in STOP.)

And at Smeulders – a firm that makes interiors – they installed a wood dust extraction system in the workshop.

Still another company discusses risks every morning with the team. (The O in STOP.)

All these companies have integrated the STOP system into their operations.

Another key condition is an open culture, where people can talk about risks, and make each other aware of them. That’s vital. And it works. I’ve seen it for myself.

One of my other working visits was to the River Waal bridge renovation project. A big project that involves chromium-6 paint.

And a good example of a firm benefitting from sector-wide protocols for occupational safety. Protocols based on limit values and the STOP system. It means companies do not constantly have to reinvent the wheel. A big help, especially for small and medium-sized businesses.

Finally, let’s not forget education. Occupational health shouldn’t be an optional subject at school. It’s relevant for everyone. Young and old.

Of course, the Netherlands isn’t an island. We need to look at what’s happening elsewhere – especially in Europe. A Europe without borders brings many benefits – like the free movement of workers and goods – but that doesn’t mean there aren’t any limits. And that’s a good thing!

So we need a European approach that maximizes a level playing field for employers and employees from all member states.

Over the last few years, we’ve worked towards this goal.

For instance, through the Roadmap on Carcinogens - an EU initiative launched during the Dutch Presidency in 2016. It’s an ongoing effort, aimed at sharing good practices between businesses and organisations.

Currently, there are EU-wide exposure limit values for 25 carcinogens. It’s a good start but it’s not enough. The next EU target is 50 limit values.

But as far as I’m concerned, it could be a lot more. Perhaps we can pave the way for even more ambitious goals here, today and tomorrow.

I hope the conference will prove a good platform for sharing knowledge and best practices.

In the Netherlands, one of the next steps is to set a limit value for diesel exhaust emissions. Stakeholders have already proposed a new value. And that’s a great start. A further step towards healthier and safer workplaces.

I hope the conference will result in more and similar steps.

Steps for the sake of workers’ safety – our common goal. Thank you.


[1] International Workers’ Memorial Day, global union confederation ITUC is to campaign under the theme ‘Taking control – removing dangerous workplace substances from the workplace.’ This year ITUC will focus on Zero Cancer, with a new poster showing risk factors for cancers at work.