European Commission, Environment DG

Managing exposure to nanoparticles in the workplace

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Source: European Commission, Environment DG

It is estimated that approximately 2 million workers will be employed in nanotechnology industries worldwide in the next fifteen years. A new study reviews an existing framework of occupational risk management and describes possible methods for controlling exposure to nanomaterials in workplaces. The manufacture and use of nanomaterials is increasing. Although this is creating more jobs, those working in these industries are likely to experience the earliest and greatest exposures. Little is known about the consequences of exposure to nanomaterials in the workplace, but it is vital that risk management strategies are in place to minimise potential harm.

The study considers a well-known conceptual framework of company health and safety for possible application to the management of nanomaterials. It identifies the primary concerns for exposure as inhalation and skin contact during the manufacture and use of nanomaterials. It also lists possible jobs and operations that have a greater potential exposure after the manufacture of nanomaterial containing products, such as machining, sanding or drilling materials containing nanoparticles.

As part of this framework, recommendations were made for controlling exposure to nanomaterials. However, control may need to be more rigorous for nanoparticles than for larger particles because they have greater potential toxic effect for a given weight. This is currently being discussed at an EU level in terms of how the REACH regulation could take this into account.

The first suggested method of control is to eliminate or substitute nanomaterials. However, since nanomaterials are produced for their unique properties, a more feasible approach might be to coat the particle with a less hazardous material or change its form. Another approach would be to isolate or contain the nanoparticles until they are bound in a product, or use ventilation systems to capture airborne particles that might be released.

Administrative controls are also possible, for example, limiting the time a worker is exposed to nanoparticles. Personal protective equipment such as respirators, gloves and protective clothing can also be used. Additionally, monitoring the environment and the workers helps ensure that controls are effective in preventing harmful exposure.

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