NASA stock photos

NASA stock photos

Earlier in this blog I wrote about the need for standardized definitions of nanomaterials so that all enterprises, government agencies, and international organizations can be on the same page when considering the need for regulation or compliance.  The need for consistency and conformity surfaces elsewhere, too, such as in communicating hazards in the workplace.

For some time, the U.S. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been pondering these issues.  In 2009, OSHA proposed a rule to align the Hazard Communication Standard (which, among other things, classifies hazards and establishes appropriate means of communicating the hazards to workers, such as via Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs)) with the United Nations Globally Harmonized System of Classification and Labeling of Chemicals (GHS).  The problem is that not enough is known about the health and safety risks of nanomaterials at the present time, and this lack of knowledge has delayed accurate and appropriate hazard communication.

One issue is the absence of information about nanomaterial hazards on the MSDSs that must accompany chemicals from the manufacturer/importer to the workplaces where the chemicals will be used.  Currently, the U.S. Hazard Communication Standard is silent on this. 29 C.F.R. § 1910.1200. 

The lack of sufficient data has not deterred initiatives in other countries, however.  It has been reported that France has filed a document with the U.N. surveying research on the hazards of nanomaterials that has been carried out by the EU and elsewhere.  China has put into place some compulsory standards implementing the GHS.  And other countries on several continents are in the process of working on the GHS initiative.

In the most recent example, Switzerland issued guidelines in December 2010 to assist industry in providing important information to workers on safety data sheets (SDSs) about the safe handling of synthetic nanomaterials.  State Secretariat for Economic Affairs, Safety Data Sheet (SDS):  Guidelines for Synthetic Nanomaterials (Dec. 21, 2010), available at

The basis for the Swiss action is summarized in its report as follows:

“A conclusive assessment of the risks caused by nano-sized materials is not currently possible, for two reasons.  On the one hand, no conclusive tests have been carried out on a wide variety of nano-objects and micro-sized particles can rarely be transferred onto corresponding nano-objects.  On the other hand, the toxicological test processes which are carried out nowadays can only be applied in a limited scope to nano-sized materials.

 Based on the results of animal experiments, potential damage to health cannot currently be ruled out for certain nano-sized materials.  Nano-particles in certain materials (e.g. flammable or catalytic substances) also conceivably represent a potential risk due to fire, explosions or unexpected chemical reactions.”  (Guidelines, p. 8 )

 Accordingly, the Swiss Guidelines recommend that:

“ •  existing SDSs should be supplemented by nano-specific data as set out in the information on the present document or

•  a separate SDS be drawn up for the nano-objects in question.” (Guidelines, p. 4)

 In the United States, the MSDS is the current gold standard for communicating hazard information to those who handle substances in the workplace.  Because of the possibility that substances at the nano-level may behave differently, it is best to err on the side of safety for workers and the environment.  Although it may not be possible to get every agency and country on the same page immediately, they should all make it a priority to get on page one.  The rest will follow.


Some material for this post was found in

Greg Hellman, Nanotechnology:  Lack of Data may Impede OSHA Plan to Create Hazard Class Aligned with GHS, 40 Occup. Safety & Health Rptr. (BNA) 444 (May 27, 2010) (subscription site)