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Workplace contaminants: Nano- and Micro-plastics in the workplace

As of now, there are no regulations for nano- and micro-plastic workplace contaminants. However, employers should be aware that they bear a responsibility to their employees to protect them, now that the threat is known.

Mircoplastics are defined as extremely small pieces of plastic debris in the environment resulting from the disposal and breakdown of consumer products and industrial waste, and nanoplastics are particles unintentionally produced (i.e. from the degradation and the manufacturing of the plastic objects) and presenting a colloidal behavior, within the size range from 1 to 1000 nm, according to science direct.

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) posted a Science Blog item entitled “"Are There Nano- and Microplastics in the Workplace?" which details the ways in which these plastics are spread to employees in the workplace.

NIOSH provides the following examples of inhalation exposure in the workplace:

Top-Down Mechanism:

  • During mechanical and environmental degradation of plastic goods, which can lead to potential exposures to nano- and microplastics among workers in the waste management and recycling operations;
  • Degradation of carpets and other synthetic fiber products that can produce airborne fibers considered NMPPs with potential for exposure among office/teleworkers and custodial staff;
  • Machining of polymer and plastic products generating dusts; and

 

Bottom-Up Mechanism:

  • During high-energy or high-heat processes (such as laser cutting or high-speed drilling), treatment of polymer composites, and during 3D printing from melting or fusing of plastics; and
  • Facilities hosting plastic processers and printers could expose workers to airborne NMPPs.

At this point, the threat is now known and can be measured. The NIOSH recommends mitigating exposure through appropriate controls.

It is likely that, in the future, regulations for microplastics will be put in place. In the meantime, employers can begin preparing by adding appropriate controls for their workplaces such as:

  • Isolation cabinets
  • Exhaust ventilation
  • Good industrial hygiene

 

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