Workers Health & Safety Centre

IRSST updates best practice guide for nanomaterials in the workplace

IRSST updates best practice guide for nanomaterials in the workplace
The IRSST a health and safety research organization based in Montreal, Quebec, has updated their best practices guide on the safe handling of nanomaterials.
Designed for all work environments that manufacture or use nanomaterials, the second edition of the Best Practices Guidance for Nanomaterials Risk Management in the Workplace incorporates new information in the scientific literature. It also provides practical information and prevention tools for the safe handling of nanomaterials in laboratories and pilot plants as well as industrial facilities that produce or incorporate them.
In this Best Practices Guide, researchers from the institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail (IRSST) recommend a preventive approach to nanomaterials in order to minimize worker exposures. Given the different exposure pathways, the many factors that can affect nanomaterial toxicity, and the health risks, their approach is based on the following:
  • Hazard identification and characterization;
  • Estimation of exposure potential;
  • Risk assessment strategies; and
  • A hierarchy of control measures (incorporating knowledge specific to nanomaterials).

What are nanomaterials?

Nanomaterials are chemical substances or materials that are characterized by their tiny size, measured in nanometres. A nanometre is one millionth of a millimetre (approximately 100,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair). Nano-sized particles exist in nature and can be created from a variety of products such as carbon or minerals like silver, but nanomaterials by definition must have at least one dimension that is less than approximately 100 nanometres.
Materials engineered to such a small scale are often referred to as engineered nanomaterials (ENMs), which can take on unique optical, magnetic, electrical and other properties. These emergent properties have the potential for great impacts in electronics, medicine, and other fields.
However, while engineered nanomaterials provide great benefits, we know very little about the potential effects on worker health and the environment. Even well-known materials such as silver for example, may pose a hazard when engineered to nano size.

Health effects

Nano-sized particles can enter the body through inhalation and ingestion and through the skin. Fibrous nanomaterials made of carbon have been shown to induce inflammation in the lungs in ways similar to asbestos. Although more research is needed, many studies have already demonstrated that certain nanomaterials cause more inflammation and more lung tumours on a mass-for-mass basis than their larger counterparts.
In addition, research has shown the properties that make nanomaterials potentially beneficial in product development and drug delivery, such as their size, shape, high reactivity and other unique characteristics, are the same properties that cause concern about the nature of their interaction with biological systems and potential effects in the environment.

Precautionary measures are key

Because so little is known about the health effects of nanomaterials the Best Practice Guide emphasizes the importance of practicing precaution. The importance of assessing the risks and controlling worker exposure to nanoparticles is also emphasized.
According to the researchers, risk assessment makes it possible to select processes, equipment and work methods that reduce occupational exposure, in particular by controlling nanomaterial emissions at the source. It also makes it possible to select collective and individual preventive measures and to determine administrative measures and training needed to protect all workers—operators, as well as those who maintain equipment and workspaces.
Finally, the authors note solutions for any particular workplace must be developed on a case-by-case basis, taking into account the risk assessment of each work station.
The IRSST is a private, non-profit organization known for its scientific research on the prevention of industrial accidents and occupational diseases. It was established in Quebec in 1980.
For our part the Workers Health & Safety Centre offers a wide range of training programs and resources on various workplace hazards and their control.
To learn more:
Visit  or
Call 1-888-869-7950 and ask to speak to a WHSC training services representative.
Want to read the Best Practices Guidance for Nanomaterial Risk Management in the Workplace?