The EU passed a Directive on occupational exposure to EMFs in 2013 (it was published in the Official Journal on 29 June 2013).
The full title
This replaces the earlier 2004 Directive, which was deemed to be unworkable and never implemented, and is the final version of the 2011 draft.
It is closely based on the guidelines published by ICNIRP - in the case of power frequencies, ICNIRP 2010.
There was a three year period for member states to bring it into effect. In the UK, this happened through the Control of Electromagnetic Fields at Work Regulations 2016, which came into effect on 1 July 2016, i.e. using the full three-year period.
Prior to that, UK employers could choose, as a matter of prudence or responsibility, to follow the new limits but it was not compulsory. The UK electricity industry carried on following the earlier ICNIRP 1998 Guidelines until 2016 then switched to the new Regulations.
What are the values?
The Directive has "exposure limits values" (ELV, the internal quantity, equivalent to ICNIRP's "basic restriction") and "action levels" (the external field, equivalent to ICNIRP's "reference level"). It has two sets of each: the "health" ELV and corresponding "high" action level, and the "sensory" ELV and corresponding "low" action level. The following diagram shows these values at 50 Hz for electric and magnetic fields. We have converted the ELVs to equivalent external fields, using the best available dosimetry, that of Dimbylow.
What protection do these limits give?
The main effects these limits are protecting against is that the external electric or magnetic field induces a smaller internal field in the body. That internal electric fields in the body can then interfere with nerves.
If you are below both the sensory and the health effects limits, there should be no direct effects on the body. There may be indirect effects, either through microshocks or on implanted medical devices such as pacemakers. Whilst microshocks may be present, they should be limited to acceptable levels below the sensory effects limits.
If you are above the sensory effects limits but still below the health effects limits, you could potentially experience some sensory effects. The main example would be magnetophosphenes, a flickering sensation in the vision. These effects are transient - they disappear as soon as the field is removed - and they are not known to be harmful. That is why the Regulations allow you to exceed these sensory effects limits under certain conditions.
If you are above the health effects limits, you may experience "peripheral nerve stimulation". This means there could be interference with the nerves of, for example, the limbs, which could be painful and, for example if you were working at height, possibly dangerous. Even so, there is no suggestion of permanent harm, except at much higher levels.
In each case, the limits are set based on the most sensitive data available, and there is a safety margin built in. So an average person would probably have to exceed the limits by a significant margin to start experiencing the stated effects.
What actions do you have to take?
The Directive requires different actions at successive action levels and exposure limit values. We have tried to summarise these on the following diagram. The basic message is:
- you have to do an exposure assessment as soon as you exceed the public exposure limits
- you can exceed the action levels provided you have put in place various provisions
- you can exceed the sensory exposure limit values provided you control any sensory effects that might arise
- you cannot exceed the health exposure limit value
Article 10(1)(a) allows activities involving Magnetic Resonance Imaging (MRI) to exceed the exposure limit values, with certain provisions. Article 10(1)(c) gives the possibility of other activities being given derogations.
The Directive uses the ICNIRP values:
- sensory effects ELV, normal working conditions: 2 T
- sensory effects ELV, localised limb exposure: 8 T
- health effects ELV, controlled working conditions: 8 T
There are no action levels for static fields and no limits for static electric fields.
The EU has published Practical Guidance on the Directive.
ENTSO-E (the European Network of Transmission System Operators - Electricity) has also published a guide for its member companies.
Implementation in EU countries
The EU Directive does not apply directly - each country needs to implement it in its own legal framework. Where we are aware of how this has happened, we give the details here.
Implementation in the UK
The EU Directive was implemented in UK law on 1 July 2016. HSE introduced Regulations to achieve this - see full details.