Most industrial workplaces already have plenty of hazards to deal with: heavy machinery, dangerous chemicals, falling objects, heights. Employers and safety managers have a lot to keep up with, so worrying about potentially unknown hazards might seem like a task that you just don’t have time for.
Recent research efforts conducted by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) draw attention to the fact that in a world filled with ever-changing technology, it’s quite possible new hazards are being introduced into the workplace that businesses haven’t necessarily prepared for, though. Some of these potential hazards could cause serious problems, but we won’t necessarily know the real outcomes for some time yet. That’s a bit unsettling.
Workplaces need to be proactive about safety and find ways to prevent potential injuries and illnesses, but the path to achieving that isn’t always going to be clear.
Let’s take a look at the recent examples of possible workplace hazards that NIOSH is researching to see what useful advice safety managers could take from these developing situations.
Electronics Recycling & Toxic Metal Exposures
The electronics recycling industry (sometimes referred to as “e-waste”) in the U.S. increased from $1 billion to $90 billion between 2002 and 2011, according to NIOSH. This means many more people are working in this industry than ever before, and many of them disassemble electronics like old computers, televisions and phones manually.
Any kind of recycling facility has many hazards including industrial vehicles, machinery with moving parts and persistent loud noise exposure. These e-waste recycling facilities may also pose risks related to metals.
NIOSH evaluations of a limited number of these recycling facilities found workers were exposed to lead, cadmium and chromium, which can be very dangerous at high levels. Facilities that processed cathode ray tube (CRT) glass—the kind found in old TVs—often had measurable amounts of these toxic metals throughout the workplace, not just in production areas. Without having proper hazard mitigation methods such as engineering controls, appropriate housekeeping methods and rules for changing clothes before leaving work, metal dusts from these electronics could potentially become real problems.
Because the number of e-waste recyclers examined was limited, NIOSH is doing research this fall to determine whether these metal hazards are actually a problem in other locations, since what is true at some facilities may not be a problem industry-wide. The research will include investigations into work processes, employee health and methods for controlling metal exposures.
What Safety Managers Can Do
The electronics recycling industry grew quickly over the past decade, so all hazards related to the disassembly of these products were not necessarily foreseen. In this case, NIOSH is still developing recommendations for how to reduce possible toxic metal exposures.
While this issue is being investigated, workplaces in the industry can consider using engineering controls such as ventilation in work areas, administrative controls such as not sweeping areas that contain metal dust and personal protective gear like gloves and potentially respiratory protection.
If you work in an industry like this one where the materials used in the workplace vary, do a hazard assessment. Could the materials possibly contain dangerous metals or chemicals? Do some research and consult others in the industry to see if anyone else is taking useful safety precautions that you could emulate.
Working with Nanomaterials
Nanotechnology is used in many industries and in some cases is rapidly changing those industries. Nanotechnology deals with matter on a very small scale (at dimensions between 1 and 100 nanometers). According to OSHA:
Engineered nanomaterials are assembled from nanoscale structures such as carbon nanotubes and filaments or from nanoparticles of materials such as titanium dioxide or cadmium selenide. Nanomaterials can have unique physical, chemical and biological properties that can enable their use in novel applications, such as making stain-free textiles using nanoscale additives or surface treatments or targeting drugs selectively to cancerous cells. The continued development of unique nanoscale structures has the potential to impact many industries, including electronics, healthcare, construction and consumer products.
Nanotechnology offers many exciting possibilities, but because of the small size of nanomaterials, possible workplace hazards exist. Workers exposed to these materials through skin contact, inhalation or ingestion could be at risk for occupational illnesses.
This was the case for one laboratory worker who handled nickel nanoparticles without any respiratory protection. The chemist began experiencing throat irritation, skin sensitization and other symptoms. This was a case where no one realized handling nanomaterials could pose a threat to workers.
These negative health effects may not be true of all nanomaterials or for all workers, and it’s especially difficult to create general guidelines because many kinds of nanomaterials exist. Nanotubes, for example, have been shown to cause lung problems in animals, while titanium dioxide particles may be a carcinogen.
NIOSH is currently partnering with the nanoelectronics industry to do further research and develop more useful guidelines for businesses in this sector. In the meantime, though, should workers and employers be concerned?
What Safety Managers Can Do
It’s difficult to make generalizations about nanomaterials, but safety managers can take steps to reduce exposure levels that could potentially harm employees.
Implement engineering controls such as ventilation, administrative controls such as hand-washing procedures and personal protective equipment such as gloves, respirators and clothing. Determine what types of nanomaterials are present in your facility and whether research thus far has suggested any dangers. Provide medical screenings such as chest x-rays if appropriate.
In general, if dusts or particles exist in the workplace and their hazard level is unknown, you can discuss this situation with workers and offer optional respiratory protection, too.
How to Prepare for the Unknown
In both of these cases, we’ve already begun to see what the possible hazards and associated illnesses might be, so safety managers can begin to prepare with plausible safety precautions. Perhaps some of these problems such as lead exposure might have been predictable to a certain extent, but that isn’t always the case.
So what should you do to deal with those hazards you can’t yet foresee?
First, if you do introduce any new processes, machinery, chemicals, etc. to the workplace, do a hazard assessment. Try to determine what possible hazards might be based on your knowledge of your industry. Do some research to see if anyone has experienced problems related to the new process/machine/chemical you’re implementing.
Next, consult your workers. Create a safety environment where workers feel comfortable—and are encouraged—to come forward with any concerns they have about safety. Especially when changes to work processes are taking place, ask for feedback. Tell employees if they feel ill in the workplace to share that information. Dealing with new hazards will likely require all hands on deck.
If you get the sense something in the workplace is causing a problem, do some research to find out if others have experienced similar problems. Then see if you can find a safer alternative. For example, if a new chemical seems like it might be unsafe, see if you can substitute a less troubling alternative.
Andrew Maynard, chair of the University of Michigan Environmental Health Sciences Department, points out that in general, the lower a person’s exposure to a potential hazard, the lower the risk of illness is. That means if you suspect a substance is posing a hazard, limit exposure as much as possible. If recommended exposure limits exist for the substance in question, follow them.
As always, use engineering and administrative controls to reduce exposures and have employees use PPE as needed. If certain employees experience respiratory problems, offer them respirators.
Overall, when it comes to identifying and mitigating unknown hazards, you need to be proactive, pay attention and make safety a topic of conversation in your workplace. Catching potential problems ahead of time can go a long way to preventing injuries and illnesses.