In December 2013, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH or "the institute") released its most updated nanotechnology strategic plan - Protecting the Nanotechnology Workforce: NIOSH Nanotechnology Research and Guidance Strategic Plan, 2013-2016 (the "Plan"). Nanotechnology involves the manipulation of matter on a near-atomic scale to produce new materials and devices. Many of these materials are already in commerce in products ranging from cosmetics, to clothing, to industrial and biomedical applications. The benefits of nanotechnology are vast, as this technology can help address global problems concerning energy, transportation, pollution, health, and food. The economic impact is also great. In fact, the National Science Foundation estimates that, by 2020, nanotechnology will have a $3 trillion impact on the global economy and employ 6 million workers in related product manufacturing.
However, the development of nanotechnology and related materials presents new challenges to understanding and managing potential employee health and safety risks. Specifically, the Plan discusses how "[m]any knowledge gaps still remain on how to work safely with all of these [nano]materials." NIOSH had previously created a series of reports and publications based on its research to address health and safety hazards related to this technology. This research identified adverse health effects in animals exposed to various nanomaterials, assessed exposure to workers, initiated epidemiologic research, and provided guidance on control technologies and medical surveillance. But, the Plan notes how, given the advanced nanomaterials currently under development, there are likely additional potentially hazardous characteristics that will need to be addressed in the future. In this regard, NIOSH's expressed goal is to continue to provide solutions that will prevent work-related illness and injury. Thus, the Plan stresses how timely and targeted research is needed to define hazards, exposures, and risks, and to provide guidance for the safe handling of nanomaterials.
Notably, the NIOSH Nanotechnology Research Center (NTRC) was established in 2004 to coordinate nanotechnology across the institute. Its mission has been to provide national and world leadership for research and guidance on the implications of nanomaterials for work-related injury and illness, and for the application of nanomaterials in occupational safety and health. Ten critical areas of research have been identified, and the Plan contemplates expanding research activities in these areas: toxicity and internal dose; measurement methods; exposure assessment; epidemiology and surveillance; risk assessment; engineering controls and personal protective equipment (PPE); fire and explosion safety; recommendations and guidance; global collaborations; and applications. Additionally, the Plan focuses on addressing five NIOSH NTRC strategic goals:
- Increasing the understanding of new hazards and related health risks to nanomaterial workers;
- Expanding the understanding of the initial hazard findings of engineered nanomaterials;
- Supporting the creation of guidance materials to inform nanomaterial workers, employers, health professionals, regulatory agencies, and decision-makers about hazards, risks, and risk management approaches;
- Supporting epidemiologic studies for nanomaterial workers, including medical, cross-sectional, prospective cohort, and exposure studies; and
- Assessing and promoting national and international adherence with risk management guidance.
In sum, as outlined in its new Strategic Plan, NIOSH will continue to use its resources and partner with others to efficiently and effectively protect the nanotechnology workforce to ensure the responsible development of this new and ever-evolving technology.
To view the Plan, please click here.