Fearing the invisible – selling nanotechnology hazards

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The community is not getting as concerned about nanotechnology as expected (or perhaps as needed).  There is the occasional scare and the Australian unions have relaunched their campaign on the hazards of nanotechnology manufacturing.  There have been several articles about the potential ecosystem damage of nanotechnology in our waterways.  Frequently, it can be heard that nanotechnology is the new asbestos.

Nanotechnology is a new technology and all new things should be used with caution.  It is odd that none of the nanotechnology protests seem to be gaining much traction.

Part of the problem is that nanotechnology is invisible and how do people become concerned about the invisible?  This is a point of difference from the asbestos comparison.  Asbestos was turned into asbestos products – from dust to roofing.  But nanotechnology goes from invisible to items such as socks.  The public see new improved versions of common items, nanotechnology is used in familiar items, but the public does not see the nanotechnology and therefore does not comprehend nanotechnology as a potential hazard.

It may be useful to jump back before asbestos to look for new communication techniques for warning consumers about the invisible.

In 1998 Nancy Tome published “The Gospel of Germs“.  Tome looks at the slow realisation in the first half of last century by the public that germs and microbes exist and can cause harm.  She is not interested in the germs themselves but how society accepted their existence and how they reacted.  This reaction – improved hygiene, infection control, disinfectant, etc – can provide us with some clues as to how society embraces the invisible, particularly if the invisible can make us sick.

Nancy Tomes wrote the book in the time when AIDS was new.  But since then SARS is new, Swine Flu is new and other pandemics will become new to a generation who have only known good health and good hygiene.  Now we are creating invisible things that we know can have positive benefits but we don’t know the cost of the benefit.

It is perhaps time for the OHS lobbyists to take a page or two from the public health promotion manual (and Tome’s book) and begin to explain rather than warn.  Nanotechnology is not asbestos and the comparison is unhelpful.  The application of nanotechnology will be in far more products than was asbestos and the nanotechnology is smaller.

If the lobbyists can make the invisible visible then progress will be much quicker.

Kevin Jones

“Getting back on the (trauma) horse”

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Mental health in the workplace is one of those recent manifestations of psychosocial hazards.  It continues to evolve and during this process one is never quite sure where the best and most relevant information can be obtained.

Cnfusion for the safety professional can come from new, slightly off-topic, issues that can skew the public perception and understanding of exactly what it is one is trying to manage.

Is it reasonable to take inspiration (if that is the right term) from studies of Iraq War sufferers of post traumatic stress syndrome in providing clues to handling mental health issues at work?  

During tertiary risk management courses the debt owed to the armed forces and their planning processes is acknowledged but soldiers operate in a unique culture of accountability, clearly defined duties and a rigid hierarchical structure.  In most circumstances only the broadest of concepts could be translated to the real (non-militarised) workplace.  In a similar way studies of Scandinavian workforce management are interesting but are highly unlikley to be transferable outside the cultural geography.

A very recent example of this problem of getting excited about innovation and then wondering about its genuine applicability, can be seen in the TV show, Catalyst, (video available online for a short time) broadcast by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation on 16 April 2009.  

The program provides a profile on a computer simulation program that purports to aid the rehabilitation of war veterans by returning them to traumatic events of the war zone.  It seems that the theory is the same as “getting back on the horse that threw you”.

In OHS terms, the applicability for firefighters, emergency response personnel etc is obvious but SafetyAtWorkBlog has reservations.  The use of video simulations and games by the armed services before, during and after combat is discomforting.  

Managers and health care professionals may need to carry some of the responsibility for the cloudiness of mental health and trauma by applying the hyperbole of trauma to relatively benign workplace issues.  Many elements of work are being described as traumatic when they are not.  They maybe disturbing, disconcerting or even harmful but there is a big difference between being punched in the face by a psych patient and driving over a car of civilians in an armoured vehicle.

In other industry sectors, such hyperbole would be described as spin.  It is the responsibility of OHS professionals to cut through the spin and not be distracted by “exciting”, but indirect, innovative solutions.  Let’s look for the evidence and operate from what we know works.  At least until new evidence appears.

Kevin Jones

Nanotechnology safety campaign (with Interview)

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On 18 March 2009, Steve Mullins the OHS Officer with the Australian Council of Trade Unions presented a paper on nanotechnology hazards to the “Science Meets Parliament” forum.  His concerns over worker safety are not shared by the nanotechnology industry as media reports show but, as Steve points out, nanotechnology hazards have some interesting parallels with asbestos.

Below are the concerns that Steve has over the nanotechnology manufacturing industry in Australia:  

  • No regulatory acceptance that nanomaterials are more hazardous
  • No nano specific risk assessment or controls mandated
  • No nano specific monitoring equipment 
  • No nano specific MSDS
  • No exposure levels
  • No labels
  • No requirement to inform
  • No health surveillance
  • No training
  • No nano specific PPE
  • Where nano specific risk management applied or promoted, end up trying to apply controls designed for larger material anyway
  • There is no coordinated approach

An exclusive interview with Steve is available by clicking HERE.

Amanda Barnard

In 2008 Australian theoretical physicist Amanda Barnard was awarded the L’Oréal Australia For Women in Science Fellowship.  Barnard is developing computational tools to predict the behaviour of nanoparticles in the environment.

An video report about Amanda Branard  is below.

Safety challenges for English pantomime

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Today, the UK Daily Mail published an example of the mish-mash of safety management problems that are confusing the public about what an OHS professional does.

An amateur Christmas pantomime is confused by the plethora of safetyand health obligations being placed on them by, it is assumed, a variety of regulators.  Let me speculate on what may be behind some of the issues.

“scenery is free from sharp edges” – a good set designer, even an amateur one, should already have this aim as part of their skills.  Backstage in theatrical productions is notoriously dark and often full of people, round the edges of scenery is not an unreasonable expectation.

The theatre company chairman says that the facility is not the best.

“Mr Smith, 59, a training manager, also claims that Brierley Hill Civic Hall’s backstage facilities are ‘poorer than Cinderella’s kitchen’ making it all the more difficult to meet the health and safety requirements.”

Ice cream and milk temperature is a matter of food safety.  These can easily be managed by the facility manager providing suitable refrigeration.  If the facility is a regular venue for theatrical productions it is not unreasonable to expect the venue to be fit-for-purpose.  Graeme Smith says that the company has already solved the issue to some degree:

“The 100-strong am-dram group, which was first formed 60 years ago, has also bought a freezer because it does not trust the reliability of the venue’s, Mr Smith said”

Clearly, Mr Smith has as many problems with the venue as he does with the safety needs of his production.

Climbing a beanstalk with a harness – many theatrical productions have incorporated harness into aerial effects or revised their sets and direction to depict climbing without physically climbing 30 feet.  This is a pantomime and it involves acting so act like you’re climbing a beanstalk.

Chaperoning children – mothers of stage children have been doing this for years.  The nature of backstage may require supervision of children to reduce the hazards of dozens of excited children causing problems and creating hazards for other stage workers.  Depending on the layout of the facility the dressing rooms may some way from the stage, perhaps through public areas, and supervision is not an unreasonable expectation.

“do not enter the props storage area” – all workplaces have areas that restrict unauthorised access for good reason.  Supervision may be the best available control measure for the circumstances.  The article refers to pyrotechnics.  If these were to be used in this production and the pyrotechnics were stored in the props area, entry restriction would be more than reasonable.

“inform the audience before the performance if pyrotechnics are to be used.”  It is peculiar that the audience is informed as pyrotechnics should be configured to operate with no risk to audience, actors, or stage staff.  If the reason for this advice is fire safety, then this relates again to the suitability of the facility itself, to fireproofing, fire exits etc.  Given the fires that have resulted from unsafe use indoors of pyrotechnics over the last few years, increased warnings seems appropriate.

I am not sure about the need to identify curtain users but the need to prevent people falling into the orchestra pit is obvious.  It is implied that this would only occur outside of productions and rehearsals and, in that case, this would be the responsibility of the facility manager.  Boarding up the pit may be an excessive control measure and alternative barriers may be appropriate.  Again this also relates to the initial design of the facility.

There are enough hints in the article to show that the suitability of the Brierley Hill Civic Centre for theatrical productions needs to be reviewed.  Many of the theatre company problems seem to be to accommodate design and layout deficiencies.

The Australian theatrical union issued safety guidelines for live theatre productions in 1999

The HSE and the Association of British Theatre Technicians has safety guidelines on pyrotechnics  and a range of other publications related to theatrical productions.

Clearly there is no “idiot’s guide to amateur productions” but there may be a need for such a publication.  The experience of the Brierley Hill Musical Theatre Company shows how one small event can be bombarded by attacks from all sides when all the company wants to do is put on a pantomime.  Theatrical productions have always been big management challenges and health and safety has always been part of this process. 

It was a fantasy sixty years ago when Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney could put an elaborate stage show together overnight in the movies. It remains a fantasy.

Kevin Jones

Indonesian Mines & Depleted Uranium

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As in most professions during time in occupational health and safety, one meets amazing people.  One that SafetyAtWorkBlog  cherishes is Melody Kemp.  

Melody is an ex-pat Australia who currently resides in Laos. As well as working on OHS matters throughout the Asian region she is also the author of the excellent OHS publication Working for Life: Sourcebook on Occupational Health for Women, a free download.

In 19 December 2008 Melody had an article printed in Asia Times Online concerning the social impacts of a proposed mine on the small Indonesian island of Lembata.  In this era of corporate social responsibility, safety professionals have a broad brief which covers many industrial, corporate and environmental responsibilities and it is often company behaviour in far-flung outposts of the corporate structure or the world that indicates a clearer picture of corporate and safety culture.  

Melody’s article is highly recommended for those with a social conscience, for those in the mining sectors and for those whose companies have Asian operations.

In 2003, Melody wrote an article on the health risks of the use of depleted uranium for Safety At Work magazine (pictured below).  That article can be accessed HERE.

Kevin Jones

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