Nanomaterials in Europe’s workplaces: what are the risks and how can they be managed?

Nanomaterials are more and more common at workplaces throughout Europe. Here at the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), we have created a variety of tools that include easy-to-use guidance for employers, workers and occupational safety and health professionals on relevant legislation and how to manage workplace risks.

Raising awareness of the issue is key. EU-OSHA’s 2018-19 campaign Healthy Workplaces Manage Dangerous Substances has been very successful in raising the attention by highlighting ways of protecting workers from hazardous substances — including nanomaterials — and promoting a culture of occupational risk prevention. The campaign closes this week with a high-level Summit involving leading occupational safety and health experts and decision makers from across Europe. The campaign involved over 30 European countries and close cooperation with Member States allowed us to maximise the impact of our efforts and to ensure relevant and localised support for workers. As part of this campaign, useful tools, such as the dangerous substances e-tool and a database of practical tools, have been developed to provide practical solutions for reducing exposure to harmful substances.

What are the concerns for workers?

Although some effects of nanomaterials on our health are still not fully understood, workers could be exposed to nanomaterials through inhalation or through skin contact in any workplace where nanomaterials are used, produced or handled. Nanomaterials are often encountered in healthcare, laboratories, construction and maintenance jobs. Exposure can also occur accidentally.

With many industries serving a growing demand for manufactured nanomaterials, the need to effectively manage the potential risks in workplaces has become imperative.

Nano worker protection

What is the EU doing to protect its workers?

First and foremost, all employers should be aware that there is legislation in place to protect workers from risks associated with nanomaterials. At EU level, requirements for managing nanomaterials and potential risks are the same as those for managing other hazardous substances. The EU’s Framework Directive requires that employers assess all the potential risks to their workers’ safety and health and make sure appropriate prevention measures are in place.

Many other more specific directives and regulations also exist to protect workers:

Under the REACH and CLP regulations, manufacturers and importers need to compile, and if necessary, generate data to demonstrate safe use. REACH has been adapted to ensure that sufficient information on nanomaterials is generated to use them safely, also at the workplace. This includes for example hazard characterisation and safe use instructions before they are placed on the market.

A key element of the EU’s occupational safety and health legislation is that employers have to carry out a workplace risk assessment and set prevention measures that adhere to a hierarchy of prevention measures, according to the STOP principle:

  • Substitution (or the complete elimination) of the dangerous substance
  • Technological measures
  • Organisational measures
  • Personal protective measures

These measures also include for example sufficient training and guidance on handling different materials, instructions on the types of protective equipment to use and so on.

Many Member States also have their own national legislation that may include additional requirements for managing the risks associated with nanomaterials.

Under REACH and CLP, manufacturers and importers need to compile, and if necessary, generate data to ensure safe use. This includes for example hazard characterisation and safe use instructions before they are placed on the market. This information should inform workplace risk assessment.

Available tools and guidance

Street sign with support and guidance

The European Commission has published a guidance document on protecting workers from the potential risks associated with nanomaterials for employers and safety and health practitioners. A similar European Commission guidance document on working safely with manufactured nanomaterials has also been produced for workers. Initiatives such as the EUON can also help to highlight available tools and guidance and information on the properties and safe use of nanomaterials.

I recommend taking a look at our wealth of awareness-raising materials, information and guidance on nanomaterials:

By encouraging enterprises and organisations of all sizes, and from all sectors, to participate and collaborate in our campaigns, we hope to increase knowledge, enable the sharing of good practices and build a strong risk prevention culture throughout Europe.

What are your thoughts on managing nanomaterials in the workplace? Do you have personal experience of things that have worked well or areas that should still be improved to ensure safe working environments in the EU? Let us know in the comments section below.

EU OSHA Healthy Workplaces Campaign

Elke Schneider

Elke Schneider, Senior Project Manager - EU OSHA

I am currently working as Senior Project Manager at EU-OSHA. Since 2002, I have been managing projects on a variety of topics. I was involved in setting up the Agency’s European Risk Observatory and in charge of the “Occupational Safety and Health in figures” project, combining occupational health and safety statistics at the European and national level and occupational safety and health research information, as well as managing projects related to the area of management of dangerous substances.

I was involved in the content preparation of both EU-OSHA campaigns on dangerous substances, in 2003 and in the HWC 2018/19 campaign.

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