Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

An Evaluation of Whether New Zealand's Occupational Health and Safety Law Adequately Addresses the Risks to Workers Exposed to Nanotechnology and Nanoparticles

Academic journal article New Zealand Journal of Employment Relations (Online)

An Evaluation of Whether New Zealand's Occupational Health and Safety Law Adequately Addresses the Risks to Workers Exposed to Nanotechnology and Nanoparticles

Article excerpt

Introduction

Nanotechnologies use processes to create novel materials and particles sized between one to 100 nanometers, although this metrology is not uncontested.1 Nanoparticles (NPs) have different physical, chemical and biological properties from their equivalent macro counterparts. There is concern that the special properties of some nanoscale materials will present unforeseen human and environmental health and safety risks.2 Nanoparticles can be categorised as natural or engineered/manufactured. Naturally occurring NPs include particles in our atmosphere such as salt at the beach. Engineered NPs are the newer phenomenon of intentionally/deliberately created manufactured nanomaterials (mNMs). This article is concerned with mNMs.

The key issue explored in this paper is whether New Zealand (NZ) occupational health and safety (OHS) legislation provides adequate protection for workers who are exposed to NPs. I evaluate the suitability of NZ regulation of NP exposure in the workplace and the current scientific data on occupational disease attributed to NPs.

Approximately NZ$6 million of public money per annum is invested in nanotechnology research and development.3 Nanoparticles are used in a broad range of consumer products (nanoproducts) such as cosmetics, sunscreens, food packaging, paints, textiles and herbal remedies.4 There are over 1000 manufacturer-identified nanoproducts currently on the market and new nanoproducts are entering the market at a rapid pace.5 An estimated US$2.6 trillion worth of manufactured goods are expected to incorporate manufactured nanomaterials (mNMs) by 20 14.6 The increasing numbers of nanoproducts are creating occupational exposures, some of which may be harmful to human health.

Given the potential market for nanoproducts, the occupational exposures and the growing evidence that "certain applications of nanotechnology will present risks unlike any we have encountered before",7 it is important to have adequate regulation of NP exposure in the workplace in order to prevent or minimise adverse public health ramifications.

Workers involved at any point throughout the lifecycle of nanoproducts (from laboratories to manufacturing facilities) are potentially being exposed to NPs. The exact size of the exposed workforce in NZ, Australia or the United States (US) is currently unknown, but studies are being conducted.8 Numerous organisations have highlighted the OHS concerns raised by NPs. For example, the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work recently identified NPs among the top ten emerging risks from which workers need protection.9 The US National Nanotechnology Advisory Panel concluded that OHS is the most serious and immediate health and safety concern raised by mNMs.10 The NZ Council of Trade Unions,11 the Australian Council of Trade Unions12 and the Australian Manufacturing Workers Union13 have demanded nano-specific regulation of NP exposure and more research into the health risks of NP exposure. Non-government organisations such as the Friends of the Earth (FoE) have called for a moratorium on the research, development and manufacture of NPs.14

FoE has warned that nanotechnology could present "a repeat of the asbestos tragedy"15 and, specifically that carbon nanotubes (CNTs), a new form of carbon molecule, may be the new asbestos.16 The Department of Labour's annual report on OHS identifies asbestos related cancer as one of the most prevalent occupational diseases with the highest toll.17 The similarity between some NPs and asbestos fibres could, therefore, present a significant potential OHS burden.

Despite these potential risks, NZ regulation of workers' exposure to hazardous materials does not address the specific risks associated with NP exposure in the workplace. Other jurisdictions such as Australia and the United States fece similar regulatory challenges. Reviews initiated by governments in several jurisdictions (the United States,18 England,19 the European Union,20 Australia21 and NZ22) have recommended changes to the existing legislation to ensure that the instruments adequately regulate nanoproducts. …

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