Ethical and Scientific Issues of Nanotechnology in the Workplace

Article excerpt

In the absence of scientific clarity about the potential health effects of occupational exposure to nanoparticles, a need exists for guidance in decisionmaking about hazards, risks, and controls. An identification of the ethical issues involved may be useful to decision makers, particularly employers, workers, investors, and health authorities. Because the goal of occupational safety and health is the prevention of disease in workers, the situations that have ethical implications that most affect workers have been identified. These situations include the a) identification and communication of hazards and risks by scientists, authorities, and employers; b) workers' acceptance of risk; c) selection and implementation of controls; d) establishment of medical screening programs; and e) investment in toxicologic and control research. The ethical issues involve the unbiased determination of hazards and risks, nonmaleficence (doing no harm), autonomy, justice, privacy, and promoting respect for persons. As the ethical issues are identified and explored, options for decision makers can be developed. Additionally, societal deliberations about workplace risks of nanotechnologies may be enhanced by special emphasis on small businesses and adoption of a global perspective. Key words: ethics, hazards, nanotechnology, occupational safety and health, particles, toxicology. Environ Health Perspect 115: 5-12 (2007). doi: 10.1289/ehp.9456 available via[Online 25 September 2006]


Science and technology have identified unique properties in materials with dimensions in the range of 1-100 nm [Health and Safety Executive (HSE) 2004; National Nanotechnology Initiative (NNI) 2004]. These properties may yield many far-reaching societal benefits, but they may also pose hazards and risks. One area of concern about hazards is the workplace--be it a research laboratory, start-up company, production facility, or operation in which engineered nanomaterials are processed, used, disposed, or recycled. These are the workplaces in which some of the first societal exposures to engineered nanoparticles are occurring. Such exposures are likely to be inadvertent and unintended. Despite a conscious effort by governments, corporations, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), trade associations, academics, and workers to anticipate and address potential workplace hazards [Bartis and Landree 2006; Hett 2004; National Institute for Occupational Safety and Heath (NIOSH) 2006; National Science and Technology Council (NSTC) 2006; Roco and Bainbridge 2003; Scientific Committee on Engineering and Newly Identified Health Risks (SCENIHR) 2005], workers are still likely to be exposed to nanomaterials.

Much research on the ethical aspects of nanotechnology has focused on generalized issues such as equity, privacy, security, environmental impact, and metaphysical applications concerning human-machine interactions (Mnyusiwalla et al. 2003; Moor and Weckert 2004; Singer 2004). No ethics research has been carried out that pertains specifically to the workplace. To help anticipate the impact of nanotechnology, it is important to provide a framework for the ethical and scientific issues involved with nanotechnology in the workplace. Ethical analysis may assure society that the expansive promise of nanotechnology does not conceal hazards and risks for workers. An emerging belief is that nanoscience and technology cannot be based on past practices in which ethical and social reflection is a second step to using newly developed science; rather, ethical reflections must accompany research every step of the way (National Academy of Engineering 2004). Our goal in this paper is to identify ethical issues that are directly related to nanotechnology in the workplace and their implications for workers' health and safety.

Framework for Ethical Assessment

The framework for considering the ethical issues can be drawn from the work of Gert et al. …