Recent developments in modern technology continue to affect all aspects of the workplace. Many of these technological advancements have resulted in improved working conditions, fewer accidents and injuries, and better outcomes for workplace health and safety.
But some new technologies also present hazards of their own.
One example of this is the emerging industry of nanotechnology. There are a number of potential health effects that could result from exposure to engineered nanomaterials. And while awareness is growing of these potential dangers, we still don’t know enough to sufficiently protect our employees.
What is Nanotechnology?
Nanotechnology involves the use of extremely small particles, known as “nanoparticles,” that have new or unique characteristics such as strength, elasticity, or reactivity. These properties are desirable for a number of products in the industrial and pharmaceutical industries.
Examples of workplaces that may use nanomaterials include chemical and pharmaceutical plants or laboratories, medical offices or hospitals, manufacturing facilities, and even construction sites.
Nanotechnology offers the potential for significant advancements in various commercial products, such as integrated sensors, semiconductors, medical imaging equipment, drug delivery systems, structural materials, and cosmetics.
The Hazards of Nanotechnology
In 2013, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) published a Fact Sheet titled “Working Safely with Nanomaterials.” It provided information about the potential hazards of nanotechnology, how to assess exposure, and general guidelines on mitigating risk.
More recently, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) conducted a study to better understand the potential effects on human health from exposure to engineered nanomaterials.
In August of 2019, NIOSH published a report on these findings.
Based on the above two publications, here’s what we currently know about the hazards associated with nanotechnology:
- The potential for side effects is greater if the nanomaterials are easily dispersed (such as in powders, sprays, or droplets).
- Nanoparticles that are inhaled may cause inflammation, damage, or irritation to the lungs.
- Some nanomaterials may produce unanticipated chemical reactions, creating additional risks such as combustibility and increased risk of fires and explosions.
- Some nanoparticles are better understood than others. For example, titanium dioxide (TiO2), is already considered a potential occupational carcinogen. TiO2 is used in a wide variety of commercial applications for things like paint, paper, cosmetics, and food.
- Employees who use nanotechnology in both research and production settings may be exposed to potential health hazards through inhalation, skin contact, and/or ingestion.
Because the use of nanomaterials is still an emerging technology, there are many unanswered questions about proper risk management. Many knowledge gaps remain on how to work safely with these materials.
Continued Research and Understanding
Although we have certainly learned a lot about both the risks and benefits of nanotechnology in recent years, additional research is still necessary.
The Nanotechnology Research Center (NTRC) is a department within NIOSH that is dedicated to better understanding the implications of nanotechnology. NTRC is the research group that was responsible for conducting the most recent study.
Their mission is “to provide national and world leadership for research and guidance on the implications of nanoparticles and nanomaterials for work-related injury and illness, and the application of nanoparticles and nanomaterials in occupational safety and health.”
Keeping Your Workers Safe
In the meantime, employers are encouraged to train their workers on the potential health effects of engineered nanomaterials.
Consider implementing control methods such as engineering controls, administrative controls, personal protective equipment, and medical screening and surveillance.
Start by assessing worker exposure to nanomaterials and identifying which control measures may work best for your environment. Do this by following the basic steps of any hazard assessment:
- Perform a Job Hazard Analysis (JHA) / Job Safety Analysis (JSA) that describes the process and job tasks where workers may be exposed to nanomaterials.
- Determine the physical state of the nanomaterials (dust, powder, spray, etc.)
- Determine the routes of exposure (inhalation, skin contact, or ingestion).
- Conduct industrial hygiene tests to determine the amount of hazardous materials present, the airborne concentration levels, and duration / frequency of exposure.
- Determine which control methods may be best.
And finally, be sure to update your company policies and training materials to reflect the most recent data from OSHA and NIOSH.