Nanotech Conference: Advice for Start-Ups

Dec. 7, 2006
Nanotechnology has been hailed as the next industrial revolution. But according to the safety manager of a small nanotech start-up, the components of a nanotechnology EHS program are anything but revolutionary.

Tabitha Maher, environmental health and safety facilitator for Reno, Nev.-based Altair Nanotechnologies Inc. (Altairnano), explained that a nanotech EHS program starts with something that is elemental to any successful safety effort: upper management support.

“The first thing you need is a qualified leader with a vision,” Maher said, addressing attendees of the International Conference on Nanotechnology Occupational and Environmental Health and Safety, which wraps up today in Cincinnati. “ … Management commitment is completely essential. If you don’t have that commitment in place, then you might as well not even bother trying to start a program such as this.”

Altairnano benefits from the commitment of President and CEO Alan Gotcher, Ph.D. When Gotcher joined Altairnano in August 2004, he stipulated to the board of directors that he would accept the job on three conditions: one of those conditions, Gotcher said, was that the company needed to be dedicated to managing its EHS risks.

“ … I told the board that environmental, health and safety issues is the Achilles heel for any nanotechnology company that wants to bring products to market,” Gotcher explained to attendees of this week’s nanotech conference in Cincinnati.

Gotcher noted that Altairnano spends more than $500,000 per year on EHS initiatives, and for a company of Altairnano’s size, “that’s quite a sizable commitment.” Even so, Gotcher added, “[w]e expect to increase that commitment next year.”

"It's a Full-Time Job"

Also essential to the success of a nanotech EHS program, Maher asserted, is to have a full-time EHS professional on staff. She pointed out that smaller nanotech companies consistently tell her that “we need to hire someone to do this for us.”

“And you really do,” Maher said. “It is a full-time job.”

She noted that the definition of her title – EHS facilitator – is “someone who skillfully helps a group of people understand their common objectives and plans to achieve them without personally taking any side of the argument.”

More than just words on a piece of paper, that definition, Maher said, comes into play for safety professionals at nanotech start-ups such as Altairnano, where many of the employees come from a research and development environment. For example, employees who previously worked in R&D “often feel very uncomfortable changing their behaviors” to meet the safety and health requirements of manufacturing processes, while others might feel threatened if their R&D projects are placed on the back burner.

When faced with such challenges, Maher advised EHS professionals to cultivate their diplomacy skills.

“ … [B]ecause most of the time those are the people that got you where you needed to be in the first place,” Maher said.

“Focus on your moneymakers”

For most EHS professionals, the multifaceted demands of the job require daily prioritization of the most important tasks. It’s no different for EHS professionals at small nanotech companies, Maher explained.

Her advice: Determine which projects likely will advance from R&D to production and “focus on your moneymakers.”

“In my opinion, there’s no sense looking at projects that are going to stay in R&D for the time being,” Maher said. While not advocating that EHS professionals ignore investigating the safety and health risks of projects that are on the back burner, she advised professionals to focus more of their energy on the projects that are likely to move forward.

Next, EHS professionals need to examine all the projects that are likely to move forward and focus on the ones that pose the most significant risks to employees and/or consumers.

At that point, Maher acknowledged, the question for small companies becomes: How do we conduct the necessary exposure assessments and controls on our tight budget? Her answer: “You can do it on a small budget.”

“It’s not very easy,” Maher added. “But you can do some things right up front to minimize the risks to your employees and to consumers.”

Some of Altairnano’s strategies for assessing and preventing occupational exposure to nanomaterials were detailed in part one of this two-part series, which appeared on on Dec. 6.

“Absolute Candor”

Altairnano says it uses a proprietary manufacturing process to develop nanomaterials “for the alternative energy, life sciences and performance materials markets.” But there’s nothing proprietary about its approach to environmental, health and safety.

Among the foundations of Altairnano’s EHS program, Gotcher pointed out the company is committed to transparency and open communication in its dealings with its employees, the public and the nanotech industry. The company, for example, at monthly all-hands meetings shares with employees the latest news and research regarding nanotechnology’s potential risks, Maher said, “so [employees] are well-informed and they can make their own decisions about working with the materials.”

In addition to sharing its EHS best practices at nanotech conferences such as the one held this week in Cincinnati, Altairnano also has opened its doors to researchers from institutions such as the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), the University of Nevada and the University of California-Santa Barbara to study Altairnano employees’ exposure to nanomaterials.

While some proprietary processes are off-limits, Gotcher noted, in many other areas of the company “there is absolute candor.”

“There are other industries that have been prevented from going to market in a speedy fashion because they did not become proactive and they were not transparent, and there were perceived and real risks with that technology,” Gotcher said, referring to genetically engineered crops. “ … So we feel that we’d rather err on the side of transparency and candor so that we get the technology to market because of the potential benefits to society.”

Charles Geraci, a member of the NIOSH Nanotechnology Research Council and co-coordinator of the NIOSH Nanotechnology Field Team, praised Altairnano for its openness, noting that Altairnano’s partnership with NIOSH will help stakeholders “better understand the ways in which exposures may occur in the workplace and to use that information to help underpin interim recommendations industry-wide for good practices.”

“We appreciate the interest and proactive approach that Altairnano has taken in building a public base of knowledge in this growing industry, and developing productive partnerships such as this should serve as an excellent example to the rest of the industry,” Geraci said.

This is the second part of a two-part series.

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