NSC: Howard Highlights NIOSH Priorities

Noting that the "assessment of exposure [to hazardous substances] in the 20th century was anything but ideal," National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) Director Dr. John Howard told attendees of the National Safety Council's 94th Annual Congress and Expo in San Diego that the agency believes "real-time exposure assessment will come into its own in the 21st century."

"Real-time exposure assessment would empower both the employer and the worker to be able to correlate workplace activities directly with [hazard] exposure levels and to take immediate steps to reduce exposure rather than sample and wait for the results to return from the laboratory," Howard told the safety congress.

NIOSH in 2004 won an R&D 100 Award from R&D Magazine for spearheading the development of a personal dust monitor that provides immediate measurement of respirable, airborne coal mine dust in underground coal mines.

The personal dust monitor "is only one of a number of devices that NIOSH scientists are developing to further the field of real-time exposure assessment," Howard said.

Safety-Through-Design

Among other items on the agency's current to-do list, Howard noted that the agency is launching an initiative to focus attention on "designing out" potential occupational hazards when new equipment, processes and business practices are developed.

Howard asserted that prevention-through-design "may be the most effective way of preventing or controlling occupational injury and disease."

"Little concentrated emphasis has been focused on this part of the hierarchy of prevention at the national level," Howard said. " … There's a growing knowledge base, a number of experts and a range tools and a market-driven demand for mainstreaming prevention-through-design into normal practice for many, if not all, of the industry sectors."

Howard pointed out that NIOSH plans to hold a workshop in Washington, D.C., in 2007 "to bring together practitioners of prevention-through-design to take the first steps toward creating a national strategy."

NIOSH to Host Nano Safety Conference

Other scientific initiatives on NIOSH's plate include:

  • Asbestos – The agency plans to publish a white paper in early 2007 to address "knowledge gaps and research needs that relate to naturally occurring minerals" similar to asbestos, Howard said.
  • Safety education for new and young workers – Building on a 2002 National Safety Council report, NIOSH and other stakeholders have developed a core curriculum in occupational safety and health for high school students. "This curriculum is being customized for all states and Puerto Rico and will soon be available on the NIOSH Web site to educators and employers nationwide," Howard said.
  • Nanotechnology – NIOSH in October published a second edition of its Approaches to Safe Nanotechnology: An Information Exchange with NIOSH on the agency's Nanotechnology topic page. NIOSH will be sponsoring an international conference on nanotechnology from Dec. 4-7 in Cincinnati.

"Our conference is centered on the implications of nanotechnology in the occupational and environmental safety and health field from two perspectives," Howard explained. "One, the promotion and protection of individual safety and health along the life cycle of nano-based products, and two, the use of emerging technology in prevention, detection and treatment of any diseases that may arise from occupational and environmental exposure to nanomaterials."

Pandemic Preparedness

Howard noted that NIOSH also has been working to provide federal agencies such as the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) with "scientific input to an all-hazards approach to emergency preparedness" as well as with scientific input on preparedness for a possible influenza pandemic.

Howard pointed to a document issued by HHS in October – Interim Guidance on Planning for the Use of Surgical Masks and Respirators in Health Care Settings during an Influenza Pandemic – which calls for health care workers to use N-95 filtering facepiece respirators in certain clinical situations during a pandemic. The guidance supersedes HHS guidance issued in 2005 that had concluded surgical masks would provide adequate default protection against airborne influenza particles. (For more, read "HHS Recommends N-95s for Health Care Workers During Pandemic Flu" or download the HHS guidance document.)

Howard explained that the recommendation to use N-95 respirators instead of surgical masks in some situations is due to a number of factors, including:

  • The "scientific uncertainty" surrounding small-particle or aerosol transmission;
  • The high fatality rate in avian flu cases in Southeast Asia, which suggests "higher levels of respiratory protection are indeed prudent"; and
  • The simple fact that "the American health care worker, like us all, lacks any immunity to the new H5:N1 strain of influenza."

However, Howard noted that the HHS guidance stresses that N-95 respirators "should not replace tried and true infection control interventions such as good hand washing hygiene, the use of hand sanitizers, the use of appropriate barrier protections like gloves, gowns and eye protection" and other administrative measures such as minimizing human-to-human contact.

Working Toward a Universal-Fit-Respirator

HHS plans to issue interim planning guidance for the use of surgical masks and respirators in non-occupational settings during an influenza pandemic, Howard said, and NIOSH is helping OSHA create pandemic flu guidance for non-health care workplaces.

In addition, Howard noted that NIOSH is trying to fill the "clear knowledge gaps in the area of respiratory protection recommendations for bioparticles in general."

One objective of such research is the possible development of a universal-fit respirator or, "more realistically, a respirator that provides a continuous indication that the respirator-to-face seal is intact."

"And, indeed," Howard said, "we have building block research going on at NIOSH that would support such a vision in the future."

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