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Risks of nanoparticles

To manage the risks of nanoparticles, employers need to understand:

  • the hazardous properties of products that contain engineered nanomaterials
  • the potential for exposure to engineered nanomaterials that may be harmful
  • and the effectiveness of workplace controls to either prevent or minimise exposure.

Although the level of risk is uncertain, we know that products that can become airborne, such as fine powders, are more likely to pose a risk than products that are bound to other materials, such as those used in computer memory chips and storage devices.

Methods, including using local exhaust ventilation (extraction), have been developed to prevent exposure to fumes such as those generated from high-energy processes, e.g. welding and grinding which contain some nanoparticles.

Employers are encouraged to use the best practicable means of preventing or minimising workplace exposure to engineered nanomaterials by:

  • eliminating using potentially hazardous engineered nanomaterials in work activities where their use is not essential
  • substituting potentially less hazardous engineered nanomaterials, or modifying engineered nanomaterials or products (e.g. using gels rather than fine powders) to make them less hazardous
  • isolating processes which release particles or fumes in the nanometre size range that could lead to exposures for the rest of the workplace by:
    • undertaking those activities in separate buildings or rooms
    • distancing those processes from the rest of the workplace
    • using appropriate barriers
  • engineering techniques such as enclosures, fume hoods, local exhaust ventilation and air filtration
  • administrative means by:
    • limiting access to work areas
    • using preventative maintenance
    • cleaning work areas routinely
  • providing workers with personal protective equipment such as individual respirators, protective clothing and gloves.

Appropriate combinations of these options will generally provide the best practicable means for preventing or minimising exposure.

Eliminating hazards at the source through effective design, incorporating isolation and engineering controls when designing plant or equipment and systems of work, is generally far simpler and usually more effective than modifying or retro-fitting safety features into existing plant or equipment.

Adapted from the Australian Department of Innovation, Industry, Science and Research's Nanotechnology and Occupational Health and Safety, a publication developed by the National Nanotechnology OHS Reference Group, of which WHSQ is a member.