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Posted: Oct 09, 2007

Collaboration is key to protecting nanotechnology workers

(Nanowerk Spotlight) In an earlier Spotlight we reported on NIOSH’s Nanotechnology Research Center (NTRC) and its efforts concerning the occupational safety and health perspectives of engineered nanomaterials (Nanotechnology in the workplace). Today, we are looking at the specific steps undertaken by companies active in the field. "We were receiving a steady stream of questions from industry and academia regarding what we knew about the hazards of nanomaterials," Charles L. Geraci, Branch Chief at the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and Co-Coordinator of the NIOSH Nanotechnology Field Team, tells Nanowerk. "People were coming to NIOSH for recommendations; we knew we needed to have a better understanding of the nature of workplace exposure during research, production and use." But, in a new and relatively little studied area of industry, where does one find these answers? NIOSH already had a strong research program to address questions in the lab, says Geraci, but field data was needed to have a complete picture. "In our minds, the best way to achieve this was to do what NIOSH does best: get in the field and gather data through observation and measurement." In 2006, the concept of a field team dedicated to this effort was developed.
The field team consists of the team leader, a PhD-level research industrial hygienist, who is dedicated to the project full time. The rest of the field team, which so far has ranged from one to nine members, varies depending on the project. The team leader determines the need and has access to a wide range of NIOSH experts including industrial hygienists, research engineers, analytical chemists, aerosol scientists and medical officers.
One of the most important aspects of the field team’s development was the idea that participation would be a strictly voluntary, says Geraci. The team visits organizations by invitation only.
So far, the field team has conducted about 15 visits, with some of these being follow ups. “The number is now growing after an expected 'induction' phase. There is a certain comfort level that needs to be achieved and we seem to be approaching that,” says Geraci, adding that NIOSH’s role as a research institute, rather than a regulatory agency, has significantly helped organizations in reaching that comfort level.
The greatest number of requests for visits has come from small organizations (start-ups, academic research labs and government agency labs), most of whom are new and have little history in occupational safety and health. “They are looking to NIOSH to provide guidance on how to move this technology forward in a responsible manner in the face of uncertainty regarding the hazard of these new materials,” says Geraci. In other words, he says, they are looking for help and guidance in "doing the right thing.”
Altairnano Sees Value in Being Proactive
One of the handful of organizations to take advantage of NIOSH’s field team visits so far is Altairnano, a provider of advanced nanomaterials for use in alternate energy, life sciences and industrial applications. A researcher and manufacturer of ceramic nanomaterials, the Reno, Nev. based organization has about 120 employees.
According to Tabitha Maher, Environmental Health and Safety Facilitator for Altairnano, about 40 of those employees regularly interact with nanomaterials. However, says Maher, the nature of Altairnano’s process and the materials they use result in nanoparticles naturally clustering together into micron-sized agglomerates, causing the handling and control characteristics of the materials to be more like traditional chemicals. But, that doesn’t mean there’s any less emphasis on employee safety.
Maher says that from the company’s beginning in 1999, management saw safety in this unknown arena as critical and recognized the importance of being proactive. Altairnano has a comprehensive environmental health and safety plan, says Maher. “We base everything on data and use a tiered approach to risk assessment,” she says. “We determine when there might be risk or perceived risk, and then we investigate it.”
Altairnano’s safety plan includes – but is not limited to – he following, which they offer on their website as a “best practice” to other companies:
  • Ensure employees exposed to nanomaterials are completely covered with PPE (Personal Protective Equipment).
  • Install an automated transfer system where manual processes exist.
  • Use HEPA (High Efficiency Particulate Air) filtration in vacuums and ensure all gaskets are properly sealed.
  • Employ respiratory protection when using and servicing vacuums.
  • Make ventilation systems and hoods more effective.
  • Have a dedicated area for cleaning off overcoats.
  • Ensure that people with long hair wear covers to prevent accumulation of particulates in the hair and scalp.
  • Install and use sticky mats to reduce dust in areas.
  • Maintain negative pressure differentials in all areas.
  • Contrary to most official reports, Maher says she believes the government does offer adequate direction and guidelines to nanotechnology companies concerning employee safety. “We feel there is plenty of information available,” says Maher, adding that the metal oxides Altairnano works with have been studied extensively. “But, you have to look for it. It’s a lot of work and you have to know where to look for it.”
    Perhaps one reason Altairnano is ahead of the game on this issue is the fact that Maher’s position even exists at the company. “Often smaller companies don’t have dedicated staff to address environmental health and safety,” she says. Maher believes that one of the obstacles for smaller companies is cost, but she adds that there are many ways to be proactive and focus on safety without spending a lot of money. That’s where the NIOSH field team really makes an impact. “They have expertise, access to advanced instrumentation, and offer a free, unbiased assessment” she says. The week-long visit from NIOSH in 2006 required extra time and effort from staff and caused some stress, but it was a small price to pay.
    “It was a very long week. The team has a limited travel budget, so they have to get a lot done in a very short time.” According to Maher, some of the staff was worried that the NIOSH team would find something, but she points out, that’s the entire point. “It’s always best to know. We need to protect our employees.” In the end, the NIOSH team found only minor issues at Altairnano’s facilities. Altairnano has since implemented some procedural changes, has made some initial engineering changes, and is working on more extensive engineering changes. “In the past, government and industry didn’t really collaborate on these efforts,” says Maher, adding that most companies worked in a vacuum as well. “This is not every company for itself and that’s a good thing. We need to work together.”
    QuantumSphere, Inc. Borrows from Chemical Industry
    Ryan Armasu, vice president for operations for Southern California-based QuantumSphere, Inc., which has been researching and manufacturing advanced nanomaterials for a wide array of clean-energy, defense, electronics and other applications since 2002, agrees that collaboration with government agencies, other nano companies and other, more established industries, is vital to ensuring the success and future of the industry.
    According to Armasu, QuantumSphere has developed a nanomaterials risk management program and comprehensive environmental health and safety system based on best practices already established in the chemical industry. The system incorporates existing information such as the Occupational Safety and Health Adminstration (OSHA)’s Process Safety Management Program and the American Chemistry Council’s 'Responsible Care®' initiative with interim nanomaterials guidelines from NIOSH and the Environmental Protection Agency.
    “The key concept of the program is that in absence of a full set of data clearly spelling out associated potential hazards, the best course of action is to ensure all nanomaterials are safely contained inside the manufacturing process,” Armasu explains to Nanowerk. This requires that controls be in place to ensure that no accidental releases occur and that during cleaning and maintenance operations, precautions are taken to eliminate any impact on employees, the public, and the environment.
    These controls include the development of process and materials safety information, the training of operators and contractors, continuous evaluation of potential operating hazards through Failure Mode and Effects and Hazard and Operability analyses, as well as administrative and engineering controls designed to prevent contact. A full complement of PPE is available and required of employees and a Respiratory Protection Program has been initiated to monitor employee health.
    “Due to the nature of our proprietary process and closed loop vacuum system, our level of containment is extremely high so that during normal operations there is practically no exposure to the employees,” says Aramsu. In fact, he says, the air inside the manufacturing facility was determined by NIOSH to be approximately two times cleaner in particulates than the outside air, which served as a basis for comparison.
    There are, however, maintenance and cleaning operations when small releases may potentially occur. In these cases, fume extractors with HEPA filters are used to capture any potential nanoparticulates escaping the process vessels. Also, employees are required to use a higher level of PPE protection up to and including full containment body suits and positive flow air masks.
    Armasu says that another key component of QuantumSphere’s safety program is education. “Our employees have access to a large body of process and material safety information data and are routinely trained in safety best practices.” Armasu says that based on his personal observation and 20+ years experience in the chemical industry, the general level of education in potential exposure risks and mitigation procedures is significantly higher than the average in other industries.
    Armasu says that QuantumSphere takes an active leadership role in understanding and managing potential risks and hazards arising from working with nanomaterials and is striving to set a high standard for the environmental, health, and safety practices. When NIOSH announced their voluntary testing program, the company immediately signed up for it.
    “The testing served as a baseline assessment of potential workplace exposure and sought to determine the effectiveness of existing materials handling practices as well as make recommendations for potential improvements,” he says, adding that the company felt such data would also help NIOSH obtain a better understanding of the nature of nanomaterials and enable the development of best practices for their safe use and effective handling.
    According to Armasu, NIOSH has already been very active in developing data and strategies to address the ten critical topic areas it identified for mitigating risk when dealing with nanomaterials and has issued interim guidelines for safe working practices in their white paper Approaches to Safe Nanotechnology (pdf). “These are detailed guidelines for airborne exposure prevention and control based on methods used in dealing with general aerosol systems. They are more than adequate to allow development of a sound risk management system and protect our employees, the public, and the environment.”
    Aramsu says QuantumSphere’s experience with NIOSH and the field team has been extremely beneficial and encourages other companies to take advantage of the team’s expertise. He also feels that collaboration within the nanotechnology industry, as well as across industries, will only improve the nanotechnology industry. “By working together, we can only gain,” he says.
    QD Vision’s Approach: Responsibility to Employees Should Drive Safety Efforts
    When QD Vision, Inc., a Massachusetts-based research and development start up, decided to invite the NIOSH field team to review their protocols, it was for much the same the reason as the other companies. “We want access to the most current information regarding worker safety that we can get our hands on; we are hungry for it,” says Seth Coe-Sullivan, co-founder and chief technology officer at QD Vision. “The NIOSH team members are experienced industrial hygienists who are familiar with the problems we face. We thought they might have very useful suggestions for how to further reduce risk.”
    Coe-Sullivan says that although there were few changes necessary after NIOSH’s visit, the team did help them flag certain processes that were higher risk than others. “After further analysis, we were able to take some actions that reduced those risks,” he says.
    The need for limited intervention is due primarily to QD Vision’s approach to environmental health and safety. “We have very specific policies regarding safety, all of which are tailored to our specific facility, materials, and handling procedures,” he says of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) spin-off that develops quantum dot materials for lighting and display applications. “We approach the risk by analyzing the potential exposures at each stage of a process, and minimizing them with engineering controls wherever possible, and personal protective equipment as a back-up.”
    Coe-Sullivan points out that the company’s 20 employees, 15 of whom work directly with quantum dots, are comfortable with the company’s safety measures. “Early on, there was some concern from people working in a new area, but we’ve gotten quite a bit more sophisticated in our understanding of the risks, and managing them, to the point that I don’t think any of our employees have this concern,” he says.
    Coe-Sullivan says that the company’s management feels it has an adequate understanding of its materials in order to protect its workers and doesn’t believe the government plays a particularly strong role in helping to define that. “It is very important for any company to have a comprehensive environmental health and safety plan in place, and because of public awareness, I think this is particularly true for nanotech companies.” While there are plenty of good legal, business, and financial reasons to focus on this, Coe-Sullivan says the most important consideration is ethical.  “If we are asking people to do a certain job in a certain way, we are ethically obligated as managers and executives, to the best of our knowledge and ability, to ensure that the work is safe and will cause no long term or short term harm to the worker.”
    By Cathy Garber, Copyright Nanowerk LLC

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