New NIOSH Document Highlights Safe Practices for Working with Nanomaterials

Although engineered nanomaterials present seemingly limitless possibilities, they bring with them new challenges for identifying and controlling potential safety and health risks to workers.

NIOSH recently released a new document that contains recommendations on engineering controls and safe practices for handling engineered nanomaterials in laboratories and some pilot scale operations.

General Safe Practices for Working with Engineered Nanomaterials in Research Laboratories was designed to be used in tandem with well-established practices and a laboratory’s chemical hygiene plan. As our knowledge of nanotechnology increases, so too will our efforts to provide additional guidance materials for working safely with engineered nanomaterials.

Nanotechnology, the manipulation of matter at a nanometer scale to produce new materials, structures, and devices having new properties, may revolutionize life in the future, the document says. It has the potential to impact medicine through improved disease diagnosis and treatment technologies and to impact manufacturing by creating smaller, lighter, stronger, and more efficient products. Nanotechnology could potentially decrease the impact of pollution by improving methods for water purification or energy conservation. Although engineered nanomaterials present seemingly limitless possibilities, they bring with them new challenges for identifying and controlling potential safety and health risks to workers. Of particular concern is the growing body of evidence that occupational exposure to some engineered nanomaterials can cause adverse health effects.

As with any new technology or new material, the earliest exposures will likely occur for those workers conducting discovery research in laboratories or developing production processes in pilot plants. The research community is at the front line of creating new nanomaterials, testing their usefulness in a variety of applications and determining their toxicological and environmental impacts. Researchers handling engineered nanomaterials in laboratories should perform that work in a manner that protects their safety and health. This guidance document provides the best information currently available on engineering controls and safe work practices to be followed when working with engineered nanomaterials in research laboratories.

Risk Management

Risk management is an integral part of occupational health and safety. Potential exposures to nanomaterials can be controlled in research laboratories through a flexible and adaptive risk management program. An effective program provides the framework to anticipate the emergence of this technology into laboratory settings, recognize the potential hazards, evaluate the exposure to the nanomaterial, develop controls to prevent or minimize exposure, and confirm the effectiveness of those controls.

Hazard Identification

Experimental animal studies indicate that potentially adverse health effects may result from exposure to nanomaterials. Experimental studies in rodents and cell cultures have shown that the toxicity of ultrafine particles or nanoparticles is greater than the toxicity of the same mass of larger particles of similar chemical composition.

Research demonstrates that inhalation is a significant route of exposure for nanomaterials. Evidence from animal studies indicates that inhaled nanoparticles may deposit deep in lung tissue, possibly interfering with lung function. It is also theorized that nanoparticles may enter the bloodstream through the lungs and transfer to other organs. Dermal exposure and subsequent penetration of nanomaterials may cause local or systemic effects. Ingestion is a third potential route of exposure. Little is known about the possible adverse effects of ingestion of nanomaterials, although some evidence suggests that nanosized particles can be transferred across the intestinal wall.

Exposure Assessment

Exposure assessment is a key element of an effective risk management program. The ex¬posure assessment should identify tasks that contribute to nanomaterial exposure and the workers conducting those tasks. An inventory of tasks should be developed that includes information on the duration and frequency of tasks that may result in exposure, along with the quantity of the material being handled, dustiness of the nanomaterial, and its physical form. A thorough understanding of the exposure potential will guide exposure assessment measurements, which will help determine the type of controls required for exposure mitigation.

Exposure Control

Exposure control is the use of a set of tools or strategies for decreasing or eliminating worker exposure to a particular agent. Exposure control consists of a standardized hierarchy to include (in priority order): elimination, substitution, isolation, engineering controls, administrative controls, or if no other option is available, personal protective equipment (PPE).

Substitution or elimination is not often feasible for workers performing research with nanomaterials; however, it may be possible to change some aspects of the physical form of the nanomaterial or the process in a way that reduces nanomaterial release.

Isolation includes the physical separation and containment of a process or piece of equipment, either by placing it in an area separate from the worker or by putting it within an enclosure that contains any nanomaterials that might be released.

Engineering controls include any physical change to the process that reduces emissions or exposure to the material being contained or controlled. Ventilation is a form of engineering control that can be used to reduce occupational exposures to airborne particulates. General exhaust ventilation (GEV), also known as dilution ventilation, permits the release of the contaminant into the workplace air and then dilutes the concentration to an acceptable level. GEV alone is not an appropriate control for engineered nanomaterials or any other uncharacterized new chemical entity. Local exhaust ventilation (LEV), such as the standard laboratory chemical hood (formerly known as a laboratory fume hood), captures emissions at the source and thereby removes contaminants from the immediate occupational environment. Using selected forms of LEV properly is appropriate for control of engineered nanomaterials.

Administrative controls can limit workers’ exposures through techniques such as using job-rotation schedules that reduce the time an individual is exposed to a substance. Administrative controls may consist of standard operating procedures, general or specialized housekeeping procedures, spill prevention and control, and proper labeling and storage of nanomaterials. Employee training on the appropriate use and handling of nanomaterials is also an important administrative function.

PPE creates a barrier between the worker and nanomaterials in order to reduce exposures. PPE may include laboratory coats, impervious clothing, closed-toe shoes, long pants, safety glasses, face shields, impervious gloves, and respirators.

Occupational health surveillance is used to identify possible injuries and illnesses and is recommended as a key element in an effective risk management program. Basic medical screening is prudent and should be conducted under the oversight of a qualified health care professional.

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