Advanced nanomaterials present unique challenges, opportunities for workplace health

Date Posted
Caleb Kimpel

The National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health supports continued study of advanced nanomaterials to identify potential hazards and the steps employers need to take to prevent harm.

Nanomaterials take advantage of the special properties of the nanoscale characteristics of a molecule to provide a benefit. They are used across a range of cutting-edge technological innovations. Advanced nanomaterials have the ability to change over the course of their use through reactions with their environment, a trait that presents additional considerations for worker safety.

The NIOSH, in a blog entry, warns “such a change of properties may result in health risks to workers handling advanced nanomaterials if exposure is not adequately controlled.”

In May, the organization released a publication on safe practices for research laboratories that work with nanoparticles. The guidance document was released in the face of mounting concern that exposure to these materials can adversely impact the health of those who work with them. It provides a basic framework of safety strategies based on established risk control processes and leading research. The emphasis of the document is that nanoparticles, despite their novelty and the advanced science behind them, are not unlike many potentially hazardous workplace materials, and to reduce hazards, employers should follow the hierarchy of controls (first, elimination; second, substitution; third, isolation; fourth, engineering controls; fifth administrative controls; and only after those, personal protective equipment).

Advanced nanoparticles may present many of the same threats that other nanoparticles pose, but some — depending on their construction — may be more readily absorbed. Further, NIOSH points to the possibility that some advanced nanomaterials may have greater risk potential than other nanomaterials as a result of their ability to change the form of energy to which they are exposed.

The blog entry points to a recently published paper in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene about the unique challenges these materials present, an initiative on nanotechnology knowledge infrastructure, and an upcoming workshop devoted to safer design for nanotechnologies.

Despite continued uncertainty as scientists push the envelope for smaller and smaller scale interactions with materials, research in safety and health is identifying hazards and shaping control mechanisms so workers of this century and the next will stay safe.

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