United States: New Safety Hazards From Nanotechnology Materials And Processes On The Horizon

The Nanotechnology Research Center (NTRC), part of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), has identified new safety hazards from the expanding nanotechnology industry. We have previously blogged on future issues related to the safety of automation and technology in the workplace, including, National Safety Council Congress: Executive Forum Industry 4.0 – EHS in the Future of the Workplace, Future Enterprise – Workplace Safety Compliance Comes to the Forefront for Expanding Healthcare Industry, A Global Perspective on the Future of Wearable Technology, and Robotics, Automation, and Employee Safety for the Future Employer. One of the potential safety issues facing employers relates to the use of nanomaterials and processes involving nanotechnology in the workplace. In a recent publication (NIOSH Publication Number 2019-147, August 2019), the NTRC summarized its research aimed at understanding the potential effects on human health of exposure to engineered nanomaterials and seeking to develop methods to control or eliminate exposures. According to NIOSH, nanoparticles are extremely small particles (between 1 and 100 nanometers, 10-9 m) that are designed to have certain new or unique characteristics, like strength, elasticity, or reactivity. The concept is that these new and unique characteristics or properties make advanced materials and products possible. The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has published a Fact Sheet, Nanotechnology: Working Safely with Nanomaterials (OSHA FS-3634 - 2013) to educate the public on safety hazards related to nanomaterials. The Fact Sheet indicates that “workers who use nanotechnology in research or production processes may be exposed to nanomaterials through inhalation, skin contact, or ingestion. The “fact sheet” provides basic information to workers and employers on the most current understanding of potential hazards associated with this rapidly-developing technology and highlights measures to control exposure to nanomaterials in the workplace.” The OSHA Fact Sheet notes that “some examples of workplaces that may use nanomaterials include chemical or pharmaceutical laboratories or plants, manufacturing facilities, medical offices or hospitals, and construction sites.” The NTRC Publication focuses on these areas from an occupational safety and health perspective to assist industry in preparing for the future by: Increasing understanding of potential health risks to workers making and using nanomaterials. Preventing occupational exposures to nanomaterials. Evaluating potential worker health risks from advanced material and manufacturing processes. For instance, the NTRC prioritizes the growing number of engineered nanomaterials for laboratory and field research, focusing on the ones that have the greatest potential for exposure and harm to workers. NTRC conducts field investigations and epidemiological studies for a realistic understanding of exposure and risks to nanomaterial workers. It also issues recommendations on how to use engineering controls and personal protective equipment to mitigate exposure to engineered nanomaterials, along with providing nanomaterial businesses with “guidance” on how to keep workers safe. In that continuing effort, the NTRC recently published its “Continuing to Protect the Nanomaterial Workforce: NIOSH Nanotechnology Research Plan for 2018-2025.” (NIOSH Publication Number 2019-116, January 2019). This Plan seeks to be “a roadmap to advance (1) understanding of nanotechnology-related toxicology and workplace exposures and (2) implementation of appropriate risk management practices during the discovery, development, and commercialization of engineered nanomaterials along their product lifecycle.” Employer Takeaway As we continue to move boldly into the future of nanotechnology, industries must make sure employees are knowledgeable and trained to work safely with these materials and the related processes and machines. Company policies and training materials must be updated to adjust to these new hazards. For more information on this or any related topic please contact the authors, your Seyfarth attorney, or any member of the Workplace Safety and Health (OSHA/MSHA) or Workplace Policies and Handbooks Teams.

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