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Sheila Pantry Associates Ltd


Focus Archive

The risks of the very small

July 2012

There are serious gaps in our awareness of the potential risks involved in handling nanomaterials at work, and serious shortcomings in the way that those risks are communicated to workplaces, according to a new literature review from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA).

We are facing nanotechnology in our everyday life in many products and applications. Although health and environmental hazards have been demonstrated for some manufactured nanomaterials [1], they are used in food, cosmetics, textiles, paints, sporting goods, electronics, detergents, and many health and fitness products. And they are present in many workplaces, too. Currently, there are over 1,000 consumer products listed, produced by more than 500 companies in 30 countries. 300,000 to 400,000 jobs in the EU deal directly with nanotechnology and manufactured nanomaterials are handled in many more workplaces down the supply chain; 75% of them are small and medium-sized enterprises.

In its review of current research on the subject, EU-OSHA found that communication of the potential risks posed by such materials is still poor, with a majority of Europeans (54%), not even knowing what nanotechnology is. Even in workplaces where manufactured nanomaterials are found, the level of awareness is low. For example, 75% of workers and employers in construction are not aware they work with them.

There are some initiatives to communicate the risks of manufactured nanomaterials and how to manage these (though not always targeted at the workplace), for example by major producers, some trade unions, national dialogues within some Member States, and Europe-wide through the Communication Roadmap by the European Commission.

But much more still needs to be done (preferably jointly by policymakers, the social partners, national occupational safety and health bodies, public health agencies, sectoral associations, etc.) as poor risk communication may generate confusion and lead to unjustified fears or to underestimation of the risks, with consequent inadequate risk prevention and control. Risk communication strategies need to help employers make informed decisions about their workplaces and put adequate prevention measures in place, and to empower individual workers to take personal control of their own situations in order to protect themselves adequately.

EU-OSHA has developed an on-line database of company Good Practice examples of good workplace management of manufactured nanomaterials which covers eight Member States and a variety of industries such as textile, construction and medical applications. Future work on the topic includes a web feature and short and practical information material on risk management tools for nanomaterials and for risk management of nanomaterials in maintenance, construction and health care.

[1] Nanotechnology involves manipulating materials at the very small scale (at nanometer scale, meaning down to 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair). Nanomaterial means a natural, incidental or manufactured material containing particles, in an unbound state or as an aggregate or as an agglomerate and where, for 50 % or more of the particles in the number size distribution, one or more external dimensions is in the size range 1 nm - 100 nm (Commission Recommendation of 18 October 2011 on the definition of Nanomaterial (2011/696/EU)).



Prevention through Design (PTD): Safe Nano Design Workshop: Molecule - Manufacturing - Market, 14-15 August 2012 organised by the US NIOSH and College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering of the University at Albany

Location: College of Nanoscale Science & Engineering of the University at Albany, Albany, NY, USA

Participants at this workshop will provide input into the safe commercialization of nano products using a Prevention-through-Design approach. Participants will share their knowledge on the efforts to develop safer nano molecules that have the same functionality; process containment and control, based on the considerations of risk of exposure to workers; and the management system approaches for including occupational safety and health into the nanoparticle synthetic process, product development, and product manufacture.

For more details see