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June 5, 2013

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Manufacturing – EMF – May the fourth be with you

Negotiations among the European Commission, Parliament and Council on the Electromagnetic Fields Directive concluded in April and, once the text is approved, EU Member States will have to transpose the directive into national law by 1 July 2016. Terry Woolmer tells us everything we’ve always wanted to know about the fourth and final physical-agents directive but were afraid to ask.

Electric, magnetic, and electromagnetic fields (EMFs) are a form of non-ionising radiation that arises whenever electrical energy is used. An electric field is generated by electric charges, while a magnetic field occurs around an electric current. Electromagnetic fields are mutually produced by time-varying magnetic and electric fields.

ommon sources of electromagnetic fields include work processes such as radio-frequency heating and welding; household electrical wiring and appliances; electrical motors; computer screens; telecommunications; transport and distribution of electricity; broadcasting; and security detection devices.

The EMF Directive covers a frequency spectrum from 0 to 300 GHz, which includes static magnetic fields and low-frequency electric and magnetic fields, through to radio frequency (RF) and microwave frequencies.

The passage of the directive has been long and problematic. It began 20 years ago, on 8 February 1993, when the European Commission presented a proposal on the minimum requirements applicable to the exposure of workers to the risks arising from physical agents — covering noise, vibration, electromagnetic fields and optical radiation.

The original intention was to have one directive covering all physical agents, but time proved that this was not a feasible, or politically acceptable, option. Instead, over the intervening years, individual hazard-specific physical-agents directives were negotiated, starting with the Vibration Directive (2002/44/EC), followed by the Noise Directive (2003/10/EC), and then the Artificial Optical Radiation Directive (2006/25/EC).

In 2002, the Danish presidency of the EU presented a proposal for a directive on electromagnetic fields and waves (Council Document 15400/02) and, in 2004, the EMF Directive (2004/40/EC) was finally negotiated and agreed, with Member States being given until 30 April 2008 to implement it into domestic law.

However, following a campaign in which the UK’s EEF — the manufacturers’ organisation was heavily involved, it was decided that the directive contained disproportionate requirements, was overly burdensome and would effectively outlaw hospital Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) scans, as well as many industrial processes. At that point, the European Parliament voted for a four-year delay to allow for a further review.

The 2004 directive was thus postponed until April 2012 (and again until October 2013) to provide time for a sensible new proposal to be developed and agreed. The final text has now been agreed, with just some formal steps still to be taken before final adoption.

The text is expected to be published in the official EU journal by July this year and, in 2016 (following the three-year transposition period), the EMF Directive will be the fourth and last in a sequence of physical-agents directives that amend the European Commission’s original 1993 proposal.

Problem areas

Myriad concerns were raised during the directive’s negotiation. These include:

a)    Potential for some common processes that do not result in adverse harmful physical effects to be prohibited — e.g. specific types of resistance and arc welding commonly used in the aerospace and automobile manufacturing industries. There are still concerns that the directive may prevent the manual operation of some commonly-used welding equipment, without any benefits in terms of protecting the health and safety of workers.
b)    A lack of clarity about the relationship between action levels and exposure limits, and when sensory-effects exposure limits may be exceeded;
c)    A lack of clarity around the fact that action levels are not simply another form of exposure limit for indirect effects;
d)    Confusion over whether signage requirements are linked to Exposure Limit Values (ELVs), or action levels;
e)    Availability of alternative methods of assessment for non-sinusoidal fields and allowing spatial averaging of fields;
f)    Retention of higher action levels for magnetic fields (1Hz to 10MHz) and electric fields (50Hz to 3kHz), as detailed in the Commission proposal;
g)    Stricter upper action levels for magnetic and electric fields than in the original Commission proposal;
h)    Inclusion of long-term health effects. The compromise position reached is to exclude long-term effects of exposure, as there is currently no well-established evidence of a causal relationship, but the Commission will monitor scientific developments and, if need be, consider appropriate means to address such effects;
i)    Employer risk assessments being made public, on request. The compromise position reached is that national administrations and companies may refuse access to a risk assessment in cases where disclosure would undermine the commercial interests of the employer, unless there is an overriding public interest in disclosure;
j)    Rules on health surveillance and on the records to be established regarding risks.

Impact and response

It is anticipated that many hundreds of thousands of businesses from a wide range of sectors — including manufacturing, health care, electricity generation and broadcasting — will fall under the scope of the directive. In the manufacturing sector, this includes automobile, aircraft and shipping manufacturers and their supply chains, as well as a large number of SMEs that carry out welding, or welding-repair work.1

Many industries are unclear about the implications of this directive because of the complexity of its requirements. Employers and safety professionals should therefore continue to take a sensible, proportionate approach to ensure EMFs are prioritised appropriately alongside other workplace hazards.

The simple fact is that, for the vast majority of premises and processes, EMFs should not be an issue at all. The decision process employers will need to go through when considering the EMF Directive is illustrated overleaf but this should not be considered the definitive interpretation.

For most situations, simple risk assessments can be put together using information provided by equipment manufacturers, or based on international guidance and standards. Where these data do not exist it may be necessary to measure external fields.

Only in rare situations, and using specialised equipment, will an employer need to make an assessment relating to the internal-field Exposure Limit Values (see below).

The exposure limit system in the directive is designed to protect employees from effects of electric and magnetic fields on the body and is derived from guidance provided by the International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP) on limiting exposure to electromagnetic fields.
There are two approaches to demonstrating compliance with the requirements of the directive in terms of exposure to EMF.  

The Exposure Limit Values are expressed as internal electric fields in the body and are the actual limits. These cannot be measured directly; they can only be calculated from external fields (i.e outside the body) and assessed by applying sophisticated computational techniques.

Action Levels are external fields that can be measured, so they provide an easier way for an employer to demonstrate compliance with the Exposure Limit Values, without the need to consider the internal-field Exposure Limit Values at all.

The Action Levels for the external field are set so that compliance with them will ensure compliance with the relevant internal Exposure Limit Values. On the other hand, exceeding the Action Levels does not necessarily mean non-compliance with the Exposure Limit Values. Where the former are exceeded, the employer will need to demonstrate that the latter are not and that safety risks have been managed. This may require additional control measures, including signage, demarcation measures (in order to limit, or control access to areas of high EMF exposure) and specific training for relevant workers.

In more complicated exposure situations, or when it is difficult to meet the Action Levels, an employer may need to assess exposure by considering the internal-field Exposure Limit Values.


There are three derogations in the directive — one relating to the use of MRIs, one to the armed forces, and a more general derogation for industry. This last will allow a member state (in duly justified circumstances, and only for as long as they remain duly justified) to allow an Exposure Limit Value in a specific sector, or for a specific activity to be temporarily exceeded, providing:

a)    a risk assessment has shown the ELVs have been exceeded;
b)    state-of-the-art technical and/or organisational measures have been applied;
c)    specific workplace, work equipment and work practice characteristics have been taken into account; and
d)    employees are still protected against adverse health effects and safety risks.

The derogation is obviously rather vague and not well defined, and it will be up to the HSE to agree with various stakeholders how it will operate in practice.

What happens next?

All parties involved in the negotiation of the EMF Directive recognise that it is technically complex and not an easy document for business — in particular, SMEs — to understand. The directive stipulates that the European Commission must develop non-binding guidance to support its application and enforcement. The Commission will soon launch an ‘open call for tender’ for consortia to bid for the development of the Practical Guide foreseen in Article 13 of the directive.

The Commission intends to develop the guide during 2014, with a view to publishing it in early 2015, thus giving industry between six and 12 months to digest the guide before national EMF legislation hits the statute book.

Once the EMF Directive is published in the EU official journal (expected to be July 2013) the UK Government, advised by the Health and Safety Executive, will need to decide how best to implement it.

The HSE previously made it clear to the European Commission that it wanted a directive that takes a balanced approach to EMF safety and avoids unnecessary costs, while ensuring worker protection. It is therefore imperative that this balanced approach is reflected in any proposed domestic regulations.
It is critical that any stakeholders who believe they might be affected by the directive involve themselves in discussions with the HSE so that the final regulatory text ensures that assessment of EMF risk is proportionate.2

1    EMFWELD, a consortium of European organisations in the engineering and welding sectors, is working to increase knowledge and understanding of EMF in welding and magnetic particle inspection (MPI) processes — its sources, assessment, and effects on those exposed. The aim is to create a software tool to enable accurate risk assessment of EMF exposure. EMFWELD will also contribute towards the establishment of new EU standards for the assessment of EMF in metal fabrication industries. The project has received funding from the European Community’s Seventh Framework Programme, managed by REA-Research Executive Agency (FP7-SME-2012) under grant agreement no. 315382 —
2    Interested readers can join the HSE Physical Agents (electro-magnetic fields) Directive Web Community, or e-mail the HSE at [email protected]

Terry Woolmer is head of health and safety policy at EEF, the manufacturers’ organisation.

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