Today's News / Environmental and Occupational Health
A NIOSH Science Blog post

Controlling exposures to workers who make or use nanomaterials

Background

NIOSH Engineered nanomaterials are materials that are intentionally produced and have at least one primary dimension less than 100 nanometers (nm). Nanomaterials have properties different from those of larger particles of the same material, making them unique and desirable for specific product applications.  The consumer products market currently has more than 1,000 nanomaterial-containing products including makeup, sunscreen, food storage products, appliances, clothing, electronics, computers, sporting goods, and coatings [WWICS 2011].

It is difficult to estimate how many workers are involved in this field. By one estimate, there are 400,000 workers worldwide in the field of nanotechnology, with an estimated 150,000 of those in the United States [Roco et al. 2010]. The National Science Foundation has estimated that approximately 6 million workers will be employed in nanotechnology industries worldwide by 2020.

Occupational health risks associated with manufacturing and using nanomaterials are not yet clearly understood. However, initial toxicological data indicate that there is reason for caution. NIOSH is committed to promoting the responsible development and advancement of nanotechnology through its research and communication efforts to protect workers. NIOSH has taken a leading role in conducting research and making recommendations for nanotechnology safety in work settings. See the nanotechnology topic page for a list of documents and resources. 

Recently, NIOSH has released a document titled, Current Strategies for Engineering Controls in Nanomaterial Production and Downstream Handling Processes, which provides information on how to control exposures for many of the most common processes seen in facilities that use or produce nanomaterials or nano-enabled products. 

How are workers exposed?

The greatest exposures to raw nanomaterials are likely to occur in the workplace during production, handling, secondary processing, and packaging. In a review of exposure assessments conducted at nanotechnology plants and laboratories, Dr. Derk Brouwer determined that activities which resulted in exposures included harvesting (e.g., scraping materials out of reactors), bagging, packaging, and reactor cleaning [Brouwer 2010]. Downstream activities that may release nanomaterials include bag dumping, manual transfer between processes, mixing or compounding, powder sifting, and machining of parts that contain nanomaterials.  Similar to controlling hazards in traditional macro-scale manufacturing, engineering controls are recommended to reduce exposures to nanomaterials.  The identification and adoption of effective control technologies is an important first step in reducing the risk associated with worker exposure to engineered nanoparticles.  Properly designing and evaluating the effectiveness of these controls is a key component in a comprehensive health and safety program.

Strategies for Protecting Workers

NIOSH’s new document discusses approaches and strategies to protect workers from...Click here to read the rest of the article.

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