Nanomaterials : Occupational health protection

The same prevention principles are relevant for occupational health protection in connection with the use of manufactured nanomaterials as for any other substances with as-yet unknown health risks.

The health risks associated with chemicals are determined by their harmfulness and the level of exposure that occurs during handling.

Based on the current state of knowledge, it is not yet possible to assess comprehensively the health risks associated with manufactured nanomaterials. At present there is still too little data on most nanomaterials from which to derive specific threshold values, while sufficient knowledge of exposure levels has yet to be acquired in many cases.

Occupational health protection is regulated by the Labour Act, the Accident Insurance Act and the associated ordinances. However, these regulations do not specifically address nanomaterials.

It is still possible to handle nanomaterials safely even if full health protection data is not available for them. However, different principles should be observed. It can be assumed that there is a very strong probability of health being adequately protected if these principles are complied with.

The precautionary principle

The precautionary principle stipulates that substances with an unknown hazard potential should be handled the same way as harmful substances. This approach has proven effective and should therefore be applied to nanomaterials as well.

The STOP principle

The STOP principle is hierarchically structured and contains a step-by-step description of the procedure for protecting employees from harmful substances:

  1. Substitution: Harmful substances should be replaced with less harmful ones. This especially relates to the early integration of occupational safety-related aspects during the research and development of products and production methods.
  2. Technical measures: Collective technical measures used to detect, limit and divert hazardous gases, vapours and aerosols.
  3. Organisational measures: The number of employees in a work environment where exposure may potentially occur and the time they spend there should be limited. Employees must receive specific training.
  4. Personal protective measures: Appropriate protective equipment must be selected. The use of personal protective equipment (PPE) is often strenuous, and individual errors quickly result in a failure of protection. Use of PPE should therefore be considered strictly an add-on measure to the collective protective measures mentioned above.

This procedure helps minimise unnecessary contact with nanomaterials, as well as other materials.

SUVA factsheet on nanomaterials

SUVA’s factsheet provides a description of how to handle nanomaterials safely. Its recommendations are based on the STOP principle described above.

Expert support from ASA specialists

According to FCOS Directive 6508 (ASA [occupational physicians and other occupational safety specialists] Directive), employers are obligated where necessary to bring in occupational hygienists, occupational physicians or other occupational safety specialists to determine the hazards in the company and to implement corresponding measures (Art. 11a Ordinance on the Prevention of Accidents and Occupational Diseases, APO).

Focussing on airborne nanomaterials

Nanomaterials can enter the human body via different pathways (exposure routes): via the airways (inhalation exposure), through the skin (dermal exposure) or by swallowing (oral exposure). Based on current knowledge, inhalation exposure presents the greatest risk to workers, and protection for people who handle nanomaterials should therefore focus on protecting the airways. However, care must be taken to ensure that the other absorption routes are protected if the working situation requires it.

Occupational safety research

Numerous institutions around the globe are researching possible health risks associated with nanomaterials and the corresponding basic principles for occupational health protection. The Compendium of the NanoSafetyCluster contains a detailed description of current European research projects.

Last modification 18.10.2022

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