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Nanotech Is Not Beyond NIOSH’s Sight

By Christine Torres

safely handling nanomaterials in nanotechnology

It is fascinating work to be able to modify a particle 100,000 times smaller than a human hair. As science progresses into these micro worlds, companies are meticulously engineering their products using very 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. In an effort 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 are taking place at the international level and involve a several organizations, including the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The World Health Organization (WHO) currently is recommending adding nanomaterials to United Nations’ Globally Harmonized System (GHS) of labeling. The guidelines from WHO address 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

caution sign warns of nanomaterial hazards

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 consider ways to reduce exposure when its form changes, such as when adding a solution to powder. Also to consider is the work activity, engineering controls, administrative controls, and personal protective equipment.

Nanomaterial Safety Management

Reduce exposures to nanomaterials prior to 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 work plans and perform routine housekeeping. Remind workers of the important health and safety considerations for working with nanomaterials. Managers and workers can master the safety responsibilities associated with innovating in the complex area of nanomaterial handling and work. Prepare plans and procedures to deal with accidents, incidents, and emergencies with nanomaterials; and ensure employees are properly informed, trained and supervised. Convey safe handling messages in a lab or other work environment using signs and labels.

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