The Director of NIOSH’s Education and Information Division co-authored an informative paper regarding the use of nanotechnology in the workplace that was published in the January edition of Environmental Health Perspectives. The paper’s goal was to address the ethical issues surrounding worker health and safety related to the use of nanotechnology in the workplace. This paper identified five primary ethical issues in this area:

• Identification and communication of hazards and risks;

• Understanding and acceptance of risks by workers;

• Implementation of controls;

• Medical screening; and

• Investment in toxicological and exposure control research.

Regarding identification and communication of hazards and risks, the paper noted the current inconclusive nature of existing EHS data. The conundrum presented by the current state of scientific research is that employees and workers rely on science to “interpret hazard and risk information and to put it into context,” yet science does not yet have any firm answers. The authors posit scientists have at least two ethical duties in this climate: (i) not to over generalize the scope and implications of their research findings; and (ii) consider "the implications of their work, even if all the scientific details are not known."

Further, the authors take the position that employers “must determine the harm that could occur if the nanoparticles were as toxic as suggested by preliminary hazard information.” At the same time, the authors warn against being “alarmist” when discussing nano-related EHS issues. They advocate separating EHS announcements from promotional announcements to ease this tension. This suggestion, however, is not particularly satisfying from a legal perspective. Plaintiffs’ attorneys are often fond of contrasting promotional statements against health statements in order to make a company look schizophrenic at best and disingenuous and greedy at worst.

Considering worker understanding and acceptance of risk, the paper suggest that this process is a “relative concept” to workers. The authors also suggest it “is a false premise to assert that workers have free choice in terms of which work and working conditions to accept.” . . . “[W]orkers generally cannot universally refuse work they consider hazardous and still keep their jobs.” Leaving aside the truth or falsity of these statements for the moment, it is clear that risk and hazard communication is often a one way street. As a practical matter, employers are required to adequately educate their employees about potential risks and hazards. Yet it is imprudent to assume once a worker is adequately informed and chooses to accept employment, the legal risk and obligation for any potential injury has somehow been shifted away from the employer.

Regarding selecting and implementing controls, the authors again note the primary problem – “[t]he central scientific fact is that the risk posed by nanomaterials is not well established.” In the face of this lack of knowledge, the paper suggests as an interim step — applying at least the same level of controls to nanomaterials as applied to industrial fine and ultra-fine particles. “Such interim precautionary measures could include guidelines for conducting workplace exposure assessments, implementing engineering controls, designating work practices, and developing process or industry interim exposure limits as core elements.” We note, this general approach has already been successfully applied in real world situations by several nanocompanies such as Altair Nanotechnologies and Luna Innovations.

On the issue of medical screening, the authors take the position that “[m]edical screening is not generally warranted when the toxicity of a material and the workers’ risks are unknown – as is the case with nanomaterials.” One would think this disposes of the issue. However, the paper allows that worker medical screening for nonmalignant respiratory effects may be warranted “where significant residual risks may occur after controls are implemented.” The authors make clear, however, they view medical screening as a “secondary preventative effort in the hierarchy of controls.”

Finally, regarding the ethical considerations surrounding the sufficiency of current investment in toxicological and exposure control research, the paper acknowledges that much is being done in this regard, yet these efforts are still criticized by some as insufficient. The authors take no position on either side of this debate.

P. Schulte, et al., “Ethical and Scientific Issues of Nanotechnology in the Workplace,” Environmental Health Perspectives, Vol. 115, No. 1, Jan. 2007.