New recommendations for nanoparticle safety in the workplace

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health, or NIOSH, recently issued new guidelines for limiting workers' exposure to tiny particles known as engineered nanomaterials.

NIOSH defines engineered nanomaterials as "materials that are intentionally produced and have at least one primary dimension less than 100 nanometers." In other words, they are manufactured particles that are very, very tiny - about 750 times smaller than the width of a human hair.

People who work in environments where nanomaterials are used or manufactured may potentially face an increased risk of occupational disease if they are exposed to the particles through inhalation, ingestion or skin contact.

What are nanomaterials?

Because of their extremely small size, some nanomaterials have different physical, chemical and biological properties than larger particles of the same substances. These unique characteristics make nanomaterials useful in a wide range of products across many different industries.

Nanoparticles in the Workplace

According to the NIOSH, more than 1,000 consumer products currently contain engineered nanomaterials, including textiles, cosmetics, electronics, surface treatments and food storage products. Nanomaterials also have a number of healthcare and medical applications.

Nanotechnology is a relatively new and rapidly developing field, and the use of nanomaterials is expected to grow considerably in the coming years. However, the health risks associated with occupational exposure to nanomaterials are not yet fully understood. To help protect workers from the potential hazards of nanomaterial exposure, NIOSH issued new safety recommendations, which include guidelines for ventilation, respiratory protection and dust elimination, among others things.

Where are nanomaterials found?

Nanomaterials are used in a wide variety of workplaces, such as:

  • Manufacturing facilities.
  • Chemical plants.
  • Pharmaceutical laboratories.
  • Construction sites.
  • Hospitals and medical offices.

The U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration, better known as OSHA, recommends that workers check with their employers if they are unsure whether nanomaterials are used in their workplaces.

Typically, nanomaterials pose a greater threat to workers' health when the particles are in a form that makes them more easily dispersed, inhaled or ingested - such as sprays, powders or droplets. According to OSHA educational materials, some nanomaterials can also pose health risks to workers even without being ingested, inhaled or absorbed through the skin. For instance, certain types of nanoparticles may be more combustible than larger particles like wood dust, creating an increased of fires and explosions in the workplace.

Workers' compensation benefits

People who are injured at work or develop work-related diseases due to inhaled particles or other workplace hazards may be entitled to monetary benefits through the workers' compensation system. To learn more about seeking compensation if you or a family member has suffered a work-related medical condition, talk to an experienced workers' compensation attorney in your area.