It is fascinating work to be able to change a particle 100,000 times smaller than a human hair. As science progresses into these micro worlds, companies are meticulously engineering their products using tiny nanomaterials to create new possibilities in medicine, aerospace, energy, and beyond. For example, a “light wire” made of carbon nanotubes is helping the oil and gas industry reduce transmission losses by 60% with a construction that is 80% lighter than copper, 20 times stronger, non-corrosive, and stretches 2/3 less when in contact with heat. The future of engineering is in nanomaterials. To help companies control possible worker exposure to nanomaterials on the job, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has recommendations on minimizing exposures to promote nanomaterial safe handling.
“Researching, developing, and utilizing these nano properties is at the heart of new technology, just as worker safety is at the heart of what we do at NIOSH,” said NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard. “The information contained in these new workplace design solution documents provide employers with strategic steps toward making sure their employees stay safe while handling nanomaterials.”
What Are the Standards for Nanotechnology?
The creation of standards for the nanotechnology field involves several organizations, including the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The World Health Organization (WHO) is recommending adding nanomaterials to the United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of labeling. The guidelines from WHO address the assessment of nanomaterial health hazards and exposure, controls, health surveillance, and training of workers.
Nanomaterials have at least one primary dimension less than 100 nanometers. Having various shapes and physical and chemical properties, these materials made from ultra-fine particles can cause respiratory and other hazards for workers that use or make them. NIOSH’s research adapts guidance procedures for industrial workplaces as well as research laboratories. Common processes and tasks with nanomaterials according to NIOSH:
- Handling of nanomaterials when weighing, scooping, and pouring, as well as discarding
- Harvesting nanomaterials and cleaning out devices
- Processing nanomaterials
- Working with nanomaterials in forms that include dry powders or liquids
In NIOSH’s report, there are key tips on the design, use, and maintenance of exposure controls for nanomaterial production, post-processing, and use before working with a nanomaterial. Employers and workers should consider the physical form of the nanomaterial and ways to reduce exposure when its form changes, such as when adding a solution to powder. Also, consider the work activity, engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment.
Nanomaterial Safety Management
Managers and workers can master the safety responsibilities associated with innovating in the complex area of nanomaterial work. Reduce exposures to nanomaterials before work by conducting a job hazard analysis. Are there ways to change the activity to reduce exposure? Consider the hazards in working with dry or liquid materials or the potential for thermal release when cutting or electrospinning nanomaterials. Establish chemical safety plans and make housekeeping routine.
Remind workers of the important health and safety methods for working with nanomaterials. Prepare plans and procedures to deal with accidents, incidents, and emergencies with nanomaterials. Be sure to inform, train, and supervise employees. Convey safe handling messages in a lab or other work environment using signs and labels.