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Health and safety with regard to exposure to electromagnetic fields

Health and safety with regard to exposure to electromagnetic fields

Paul Laidler, business director for machinery safety at TÜV SÜD Product Service looks at the new Physical Agents Directive EMF 2013/35/EU.

The Physical Agents Directive EMF 2013/35/EU was introduced on 26 June 2013 and European Union Member States have until 1 July 2016 to transpose it into national law and implement the legislation. The Directive covers the minimum health and safety requirements regarding the exposure of workers to the risks arising from electromagnetic fields. It forms one of a series of Physical Agents Directives for vibration, acoustic noise and optical radiation that are concerned with workplace safety and the impact of workplace activities on the general public.

The European Commission does not specifically legislate for general public exposure as public health and safety remains the remit of individual Member States; it has therefore only made a "Council Recommendation" 1999/519/EC. However, electrical products and machinery marketed in the European Union have to meet relevant CE marking Directives and harmonised product standards that include health and safety requirements  incorporating EMF. Related European EMF Directives include:
  • Workplace: Physical Agents Directive (Electro-magnetic Fields) 2013/35/EU
  • General public: EU Council Recommendation 1999/519/EC of 12 July 1999 on the limitation of exposure of the general public to electromagnetic fields (0Hz to 300GHz)
  • Products: EU Directives include essential health and safety requirements for radiation control for electrical products leading to CE marking:
a)  Radio and Telecommunication Terminal
b)  Directive 1999/5/EC
c)  Low Voltage Directive 2006/95/EC
d)  Machinery Directive 2006/42/EC
The Physical Agents Directive (EMF) identifies the need for competent services or persons to undertake a workplace assessment. While the exact definition of a competent service or person is not currently regulated, the Health & Safety Executive (HSE) definition is: "Someone who has sufficient training and experience or knowledge and other qualities that allow them to assist you properly. The level of competence required will depend on the complexity of the situation and the particular help you need." For EMF, this means that suitable persons should be appointed with defined responsibilities for EMF safety, with their role summarised as follows:
  • Receive relevant training on the EMF sources, measurement and calculation procedures.
  • Have access to current EMF Directive, guidance and standards.
  • Liaise with employer/operator to understand specific hazards for the site.
  • Perform periodic risk assessment, calculation and measurement using appropriate test equipment.
  • Produce reports and records for employer/operator.
  • Ensure safety controls identified and applied correctly.
  • Consult with other workers.
  • Provide training in safe operation/maintenance of EMF sources where necessary for workers/visitors.
  • Assist with EMF exposure incident investigation and advise on medical examination.

Prior to legislation being introduced, a series of 'practical guides' to compliance will be issued by the European Commission, but these are unlikely to be available until approximately six months before the legislation must be adhered to. In the meantime compliance is required under the "Management of the Health and Safety at Work Regulations" where a risk assessment of EMF hazards in the workplace can be made using the HSE general guide to risk assessment in five steps. These are:
  1. Identify the hazards
  2. Decide who might be harmed and how
  3. Evaluate the risks and decide on precautions
  4. Record your findings and implement them
  5. Review your assessment and update if necessary

This five step approach can be mapped across to the EMF risk assessment process in such a way that it will also satisfy future regulation under the Physical Agents Directive (EMF). As a starting point to identify EMF hazards, the standard EN 50499 'Procedure for the Assessment of the Exposure of Workers to Electromagnetic Fields' describes an approach to identifying hazards by using an initial assessment that contains lists of equipment that are not an EMF hazard and those that might be. Equipment is deemed to comply without further assessment if for example it is electrical/electronic equipment carrying CE marking that meets harmonised standards for EMF or equipment that already meets general public exposure levels. Examples of equipment likely to require further assessment includes electricity supply networks, industrial magnetizers/demagnetizers, electric welding and industrial microwave heating and drying machinery. Where equipment is identified as producing an EMF hazard, a detailed assessment will be required to identify any safety controls together with safety operating procedures and procedures to be adopted in case of accidental or suspected overexposure, including a process for medical examinations.

The Physical Agents Directive (EMF) includes safety controls in its Article 5 "Provisions Aimed at Avoiding or Reducing Risks". This includes controls such as zoning, barriers and signs, beam elevation, locking off access, selecting alternative equipment that emits less EMF, and restructuring the layout of the workplace. Occupational-only controls include introducing alternative working methods to reduce exposure, the use of interlocks and shielding on equipment, limiting exposure by reducing the power or turning equipment off, and the use of personal protective equipment.

EN 50499 uses a Zoning scheme to categorise the workplace:
  • Zone 0 workplace is one in which the exposure levels are in accordance with general public exposure levels.
  • Zone 1 workplace exposures may be greater than general public exposure levels but will be compliant with occupational exposure levels.
  • Zone 2 exposures may be greater than the occupational exposure levels. If access is required to Zone 2, then remedial measures to reduce exposure or to restrict or limit access should be taken. This may require special authorisation and temporary controls to reduce exposure (for example, Permit to Work).

How to deal with the health risks posed by electromagnetic fields generated by equipment and machinery is an issue that many find complex. It is also clear that the assessment process can be complicated and, once completed, may result in significant changes to the workplace environment. Organisations should therefore take action now to implement a process that will ensure that the equipment they use poses no risk and meets the new Physical Agents Directive (EMF) from July 2016.
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