Australian workers need more information to protect themselves from the risks of nanomaterials, say unions.
Renata Musolino, nanotechnology spokesperson for the Australian Council of Trade Unions (ACTU), says the findings are contained in a new report commissioned by Safe Work Australia.
"We need urgent changes to ensure adequate information is reaching workplaces, so that employers can comply with their general duties under occupational, health and safety legislation," she says.
Musolino says the Safe Work Australia report, expected to be released shortly, evaluates the information provided to Australian workplaces on engineered nanomaterials.
She says the report found only 18% of information packages, called Material Safety Data Sheets (MSDSs), had reliable safety warnings.
"The Material Safety Data Sheet is your 'go-to' document to find out what you're using," says Musolino, who is also a member of the Victorian Trades Hall in Melbourne.
"It tells you what you have to do in the workplace to ensure people's health and safety is protected, and what you need to have in place to ensure you can handle a spill or an accident."
Musolino says the Safe Work Australia report also found MSDS information on exposure standards and controls was inadequate.
One problem was that this information is being based on data for standard-sized chemicals versus their nano-sized versions, she says.
The MSDSs also failed to indicate where there was a lack of knowledge about nanomaterials, says Musolino.
Musolino says the quality of information about carbon nanotubes revealed by the report is of particular concern.
Carbon nanotubes are nano-sized cylinders of carbon that are used in the construction of various consumer products.
Recent evidence has shown that some commercially-available carbon nanotubes can cause pre-cancerous symptoms in the lungs of mice.
"We're almost certain that they are hazardous. They display a whole lot of characteristics that are very similar to asbestos," says Musolino, who sits on the Safe Work Australia committee that reviewed the report.
Musolino says the report found the majority of MSDSs for products covering carbon nanotubes contained insufficient information for workers to assess their risk and take precautions.
She says the report also found only three of the MSDSs included specific information on the ecological effects of nanomaterials.
"That's a worry if things are being released into waste water or out into the atmosphere," says Musolino.
She says authorities still don't know how widespread nanomaterial use is in Australian workplaces, and the ACTU is calling for a register that identifies what is being used and where.
But Musolino says the problem could become huge as the number of engineered nanomaterials grows, each with their own specific properties.
Call for action
Musolino says while the industrial chemicals regulator, NICNAS, is proposing changes to regulations for nanotechnology other things can be done in the short term.
She wants MSDSs to give information on the size of nanomaterials, their bio-persistence and other characteristics that can help workers take the necessary precautions.
Musolino says the Safe Work Australia committee she sits on plans to discuss MSDSs later this month. She would like the findings of the report acknowledged and acted on.
"This report has illustrated serious shortcomings in the sort of information that's available and it has clearly said there is an urgent need for improvement," she says.
Musolino says while scientists are still trying understand how best to characterise nanomaterials and to set safety standards, there is much that can be done to protect workers from exposure.
"There are lots of things that can be done that will offer protection to workers," says Musolino.
"What's missing is the information to trigger people to actually implement them."