Nanotechnology is the precision engineering or manufacture of very, very small particles that are about one thousandth the width of a human hair. Because of their extremely small size, nanomaterials are thought to be able to move past some of the body's protective mechanisms which would normally intercept particles of a larger size.
Precise information on the human health effects of nanoparticles is very limited but animal and tissue studies suggest that these materials may be more toxic than their bulk materials (which contain larger particles). Exposure to nanoparticles is most likely to occur through inhalation, but may also occur through the skin or ingestion. The significance of different routes of exposure is largely unclear and the metabolism and elimination pathways are unknown.
In July 2006, Safe Work Australia released a report it commissioned on the potential OH&S implications of nanotechnology. This report states that:
"….given the lack of information, a precautionary approach should be adopted regarding work practices. For most processes associated with the manufacture of nanoparticles, the control of airborne exposure can probably be accomplished quite well using a wide variety of engineering controls similar to those used to reduce exposures to conventional aerosols."
The Safe Work Australia report further states that when considering measures to reduce exposure to nanoparticles, it is important to employ a broad based risk management approach.
WorkSafe Victoria endorses a broad based risk management approach and recommends that exposure to nanoparticles is reduced so far as is reasonably practicable.
Safe Work Australia has recently received funding to implement a nanotechnology OHS program. WorkSafe Victoria will maintain a watching brief on developments arising from these Safe Work Australia activities.