COSHH requires employers to protect workers from exposure to harmful substances in the workplace. Embodying the principles of proportionality and risk assessment, COSHH enables employers to make a valid decision about the measures necessary to prevent or adequately control the exposure of their employees.
Due to the chemical and physical properties of some nanomaterials, and depending on how they are handled or used they can give to a risk of fire and explosion. If so, then the principle legislation applying to the control of substances that can cause fires and explosions in the workplace is the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres Regulations 2002 (DSEAR).
The key requirements in DSEAR are that risks from dangerous substances are assessed and eliminated or reduced so far as is reasonably practicable. Again the principle of risk assessment applies under these regulations.
The REACH regulation is the key EU/UK legislation which covers the full life cycle of chemicals including nano-sized ones.
Sensible risk management
We believe that risk management should be about practical steps to protect people from real harm and suffering - not bureaucratic back covering. If you believe some of the stories you hear, health and safety is all about stopping any activity that might possibly lead to harm. This is not our vision of sensible health and safety - we want to save lives, not stop them. Our approach is to seek a balance between the unachievable aim of absolute safety and the kind of poor management of risk that damages lives and the economy.
There are gaps in knowledge and understanding about the hazards to health and safety posed by nanomaterials. Many nanomaterials have not been fully evaluated. This should not stop risk management but a sensible precautionary approach should be taken to the risk management. More information on this can be found on HSE's website at United Kingdom Interdepartmental Liaison Group on Risk Assessment (UK-ILGRA).
What is risk assessment?
A risk assessment is simply a careful examination of what, in your work, could cause harm to people, so that you can weigh up whether you have taken enough precautions or should do more to prevent harm. Workers and others have a right to be protected from harm caused by a failure to take reasonable control measures.
COSHH relies on having good information about the hazardous nature of materials, the effectiveness of control approaches and easy ways to monitor exposure. When carrying out a risk/COSHH assessment for nanomaterials it may be that the information available is incomplete or incorrect. HSE recognises this and expects employers to apply a precautionary approach to the risk management and assessment which must be reviewed regularly in the light of any new hazard information being available.
Employers need to carry out a COSHH assessment on the materials being used. Legally, in workplaces that have five or more workers, a record must be made of the assessment, but it makes sense even with fewer than five workers, that some kind of record is made of the steps taken and any significant findings.
It is important with nanomaterials that a list of the actions taken to control the risks to health is made - steps taken to identify the risk, how that possible risk to health is being controlled and how this will be reviewed.
Remember to check that all controls are effective and continue to work and that associated operating instructions are up to date, are continually reviewed and include information on the hazardous properties.
The absence of knowledge about the health hazards of new nanomaterials introduces significant uncertainty into any risk assessment - implement precautionary controls when working with them.
Potential health concerns
Nanotechnology is an emerging field. It is expected to be the basis of much technological innovation in the 21st century. However, along with any new innovation there come uncertainties as to whether the unique properties of engineered nanomaterials pose an occupational health risk.
Gaps in our knowledge about the factors that are essential for predicting health risks such as routes of exposure, translocation of nanomaterial once inside the body, and the interaction of the nanomaterial with the body's biological systems are not yet fully understood.
Assessment of health risks arising from exposure to nanomaterials or other substances requires understanding of the intrinsic toxicity of the substance, the levels of exposure (by inhalation, by ingestion or through the skin) that may occur and any relationship between exposure and health effects. More data is needed on the health risks associated with exposure to engineered nanomaterials.
Where nanomaterials have an uncertain or not clearly defined toxicology and unless, or until, sound evidence is available on the hazards from inhalation, ingestion, or absorption a precautionary approach should be taken to the risk management.
When the nanomaterial is combustible, for example many carbon based or metallic materials, it will be necessary to assess whether the way it is to be processed or the quantities handled could create a fire or explosion risk. DSEAR requires an assessment to be carried out whenever dangerous substances, including combustible dusts or fine particles, are used in the workplace in order to determine the appropriate prevention and mitigation measures to control the risks. Further information on the DSEAR risk assessment can be found in the Dangerous Substances and Explosive Atmospheres - Approved Code of Practice and Guidance L138.