By, Jaime T. Landrum:

As the impact of nanotechnology grows, more companies are considering the utilization of nanotech products and processes in the workplace. Questions regarding nanotechnology’s effect on the American worker, however, come side-by-side with these business decisions. As reported at Occupational Hazards, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) is expected to issue guidance for employers facing these problems.

Doug Trout, Associate Director for Science for the Division of Surveillance, Hazard Evaluations and Field Studies discussed this issue at the International Conference on Nanotechnology Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety last week. According to the article, NIOSH will recommend that all nanotechnology employers implement an occupational health surveillance program designed to help employers evaluate the risks and necessary protections resulting from nanotechnology’s use. The necessity for such guidance is apparent, considering "the growth of nanotechnology in the workplace, the unique physical and chemical properties of nanomaterials and early evidence suggesting that ‘nanoparticles may have toxic effects greater than larger-size particles and at lower doses.’"

For those unaccustomed to the field of occupational health, the article explains that an occupational health surveillance program includes hazard surveillance and/or medical surveillance. These two components are designed to identify and monitor workplace hazards and occupational health problems.

The first step in any health surveillance program is a needs assessment. NIOSH intends to provide a needs assessment framework for employers, including recommendations for the evaluation of various risk factors. We know, however, that the needs assessment will contain a hazard assessment and an exposure assessment. The article quotes Trout as stating "The purpose of this needs assessment in an occupational setting is to determine – by performing hazard and exposure assessments – whether a health risk due to occupational exposure [to nanomaterials] exists in the workplace."

As most employers already realize, the research on the risks and effects of nanotechnology is still evolving. Trout is quoted as acknowledging that "information may not be available to make a well-informed determination of risk." For that reason, "periodic reassessment" will be of vital importance in the workplace.

Even NIOSH cannot provide definitive answers to nanotechnology employers- at least not yet. Everyone agrees, however, that the use of nanotechnology may pose a significant risk to employees. The NIOSH guidance will provide some welcome relief to employers struggling to understand what the dangers of nanotechnology are and how to avoid them.

For the full article, see here.