Survey Shows Confusion On Protecting Nano Workers

(NHI Nanoblog) As super-small particles and materials become increasingly common in manufacturing, how are companies dealing with the potential to expose their workers to invisible hazards?

A group of researchers from the University of California, Santa Barbara decided to find out. They did a survey of international companies, discovering that the workplace safety picture isn’t yet fully formed.

Cassandra Engeman, a doctoral student in sociology at UCSB, presented the group’s findings at last month’s Fifth International Symposium on Nanotechnology, Occupational and Environmental Health.

While the survey sample was relatively small–78 companies participated—the responses suggest that companies working with nanoparticles aren’t yet sure about the right way to protect those handling the materials, or how to dispose of them.

Engeman’s collaborators on the survey include other UCSB researchers associated with the school’s branch of the Center for the Environmental Implications of Nanotechnology and the National Science Foundation-funded Center for Nanotechnology and Society: Barbara Herr Harthorn, Patricia Holden and Lynn Baumgartner. 

Engeman said 87 percent of the companies have a basic program dealing with environmental health and safety issues, known in the industry as EHS. Nearly half have an EHS program that’s nano-specific. However, 13 percent reported no safety program at all.

More than 60 percent of the companies are monitoring work areas for nanoparticles, Engeman said. But when they asked for details about how they were dealing with potential contamination, the researchers got some disturbing answers. A significant number of companies said they’re using methods, such as sweeping or vacuuming, that are more likely to disperse nanoparticles into the air than they are to clean them up.

Engeman said the survey shows there’s still a long way to go when it comes to workplace safety and nanotechnology. The views of workers are “missing from the discussion,” she said, and many questions remain about whether the practices described by the companies surveyed are the most useful.

Nanotechnology leverages super-small particles (a nanometer is a billionth of a meter) to create new products. These materials can make bike frames lighter and stronger and sunscreen more transparent on the skin, as well as new medical instruments and medicines that can save lives.

There is broad agreement that nanomaterials have lots of potential for a wide variety of applications. But shrinking these substances can change their properties; scientists are struggling to figure out whether, how and why that shift can make them dangerous in the process.

Gathering this kind of information is important in the absence of formal regulation of most nanomaterials. Engineering the ultra-tiny particles is a laborious process that often requires heavy use of resources such as water, making disposal of runoff or other waste material a concern.

Workplace safety has become an important part of the larger effort to come to grips with the potential risks associated with nanoparticles. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health works with manufacturers on protecting employees, as do some academic researchers. The UCSB survey seems to indicate that concerns over whether companies are adopting recommendations from NIOSH and others are justified.

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