Are You Applying Best Practices for Engineered Nanomaterials?

Does your company deal with engineered nanomaterials (ENM)? If so, the federal government wants to know your occupational safety and health practices.

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By 2018, the National Science Foundation (NSF) estimates, nanotechnology will have a $4.4 trillion impact on the global economy. Previous estimates have stated that 6 million nanotechnology jobs will be needed by 2020, with 2 million of those jobs in the United States.

Nanotechnology has the potential to create many new jobs across a variety of sectors. While some jobs will require an advanced degree, a 2014 study funded by the NSF points out that 2-year and 4-year training with access to continuing and technical education will be sufficient for many of the future positions in nanotechnology.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) has published a number of reports and research documents concerning worker health and nanomaterials dating back to 2007. Now, the Institute is embarking on a project to survey companies that deal with ENM. What are they looking for, and how will the information impact your operations?

What are ENMs?

ENMs are materials that have been purposefully manufactured, synthesized, or manipulated to have a size with at least one dimension in the range of approximately 1 to 100 nanometers and that exhibit unique properties determined by their size. They are assembled from nanoscale structures such as carbon nanotubes and filaments or from nanoparticles of materials such as titanium dioxide. According to NIOSH, a growing body of evidence indicates that exposure to some of these ENMs can cause adverse health effects.

The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) suggests the employers check with manufacturers of chemicals and materials used in their workplace to determine if unbound ENMs are present. The potential for nanomaterials to pose health or safety hazards is greater if the nanomaterials are easily dispersed (such as in powders, sprays, or droplets) or are not isolated or contained.

NIOSH Survey

NIOSH intends to survey 600 companies that manufacture, distribute, fabricate, formulate, use, or provide services related to ENMs. The analysis will describe the survey sample, response rates, and types of company by industry and size.

Further analysis will focus on identifying the types of ENMs being used in industry and the types of occupational safety and health practices being implemented.

The goal of the project is to assess the relevance and impact of NIOSH’s contribution to guidelines and risk mitigation practices for safe handling of ENMs in the workplace. NIOSH intends to use the data to inform its research agenda to enhance its relevance and impact on worker safety and health concerning ENMs.


The GoodNanoGuide, a collaboration by NIOSH, Oregon State University, and the Oregon Nanoscience and Microtechnologies Institute intends to create a central repository for good practices for safely handling nanomaterials. The GoodNanoGuide contains, among a plethora of other information, an Occupational Risk Management Matrix that provides a framework for occupational risk management designed to control and minimize exposures to ENMs where there is uncertainty.

The matrix suggests that you identify the hazard as a first step and then follow up with risk assessment and management.

For example, workers involved in unpacking dry powders face the potential for highly concentrated exposure to “free” nanomaterials. It offers an industry protocol for shipping and labeling that was developed by the CARBonCHIP consortium. In addition, suggested controls include:

  • Ventilated laboratory hood or local exhaust enclosure with high-efficiency particulate air (HEPA) exhaust filtration should be used.
  • If an exhausted enclosure is not available, personal protective equipment should be used to minimize potential for respiratory, dermal, and eye exposure.
  • Latex or nitrile clean room gloves should be worn.
  • Wet cleaning of laboratory hood surfaces or local exhaust enclosure following conclusion of handling operations should be performed.
  • The filtered air must not be recirculated into the workplace.

Takeaway for EHS Managers

ENMs are becoming increasingly common in the workplace. If workers in your company handle ENMs, you may be hearing from NIOSH concerning your safety and health practices. Resources such as the GoodNanoGuide can provide you with training and best practices that can help you protect your coworkers who work with these tiny materials.