There are serious gaps in awareness of the potential risks involved in handling nanomaterials at work, and serious shortcomings in the way that those risks are communicated to workplaces.

According to a new literature review from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA), nanotechnology, which involves manipulating materials at the very small scale (at nanometer scale, meaning down to 10,000 times smaller than the diameter of a human hair) is now being used in our everyday life in many products and applications.

But despite health and environmental hazards being demonstrated for some manufactured nanomaterials, they are used in food, cosmetics, textiles, paints, sporting goods, electronics, detergents, and are present in many workplaces.

Currently, there are over 1,000 consumer products listed, produced by more than 500 companies in 30 countries. 300,000 to 400,000 jobs in the EU deal directly with nanotechnology and manufactured nanomaterials are handled in many more workplaces down the supply chain; 75% of them are small and medium-sized enterprises.

EU-OSHA found that communication of the potential risks posed by such materials is still poor, with a majority of Europeans (54%) not even knowing what nanotechnology is. Even in workplaces where manufactured nanomaterials are found, the level of awareness is low. For example, 75% of workers and employers in construction are not aware they work with them.

There are some initiatives to communicate the risks of manufactured nanomaterials and how to manage these but much more still needs to be done as poor risk communication may generate confusion and lead to unjustified fears or to underestimation of the risks, with consequent inadequate risk prevention and control.

EU-OSHA has developed an online database of company Good Practice examples of good workplace management of manufactured nanomaterials, which covers eight Member States and a variety of industries such as textile, construction and medical applications.

Future work on the topic includes a web feature and short and practical information material on risk management tools for nanomaterials and for risk management of nanomaterials in maintenance, construction and health care.