Nanotechnology: Come the Luddites

By April 8, 2006General

Blog god Glenn Reynolds of Instapundit, in his excellent book “An Army of Davids” (review forthcoming, we promise….) dedicates an entire chapter to “Empowering the Really Little Guys”, i.e., nanotechnology. In it, this visionary cautions against letting the Luddites and their fears impede the advance of nanotechnology. To be sure, he doesn’t turn a blind eye to exploring — and addressing — potential pitfalls, but he certainly makes the case for letting the technology advance and not allowing the Luddites to impede important medical and scientific advancements.

We thought of Glenn today when we read the Washington Post front page article by Rick Weiss entitled, “Nano Raises Worker Safety Questions“. Our first question was, “With whom does nano raise questions?” Certainly not with anyone we’ve spoken to. The story goes on to profile a nanotech company that’s working with NIOSH to explore any special needs of nanotech. He vaguely alludes to OHSA’s “General Duty clause”, but mostly glosses over it.

The truth (here we go again) is that section 5 (a) (1) of the Occupational Safety and Health Act is called the “general duty clause”, and deserves more than just a passing mention. it provides:

“(a) Each employer —

(1) shall furnish to each of his employees employment and a place of employment which are free from recognized hazards that are causing or are likely to cause death or serious physical harm to his employees.”

Pretty straightforward, no? The truth is that it doesn’t matter whether a workplace is nanotech, microtech, macrotech or no tech at all. It’s all covered by the Occupational Safety and Health Act. (With the obvious exceptions for places like mining, that have their own separate regulatory regime.) We are regulated enough, thank you. For those who would scramble to add more regulation of a sector that is in its nascent stage we would throw in with Glenn Reynolds and advise them to count ten — or maybe a hundred — and not choke this technology in its crib. Innovation is at the root of manufacturing. Over-regulation is its enemy.

To the Luddites we say, “Let a million nano-flowers bloom.”

Join the discussion 2 Comments

  • Jordan Barab says:

    Pat, as usual you’re on the wrong side of truth, justice and the American way. Being as it’s clear to almost everyone (apparently except for the people you talk to) that there are potential hazards associated with nanotechnologies, isn’t it better to discover them now and plan how to address them, rather than being sued later, or having regulations imposed after huge numbers of factories have been built? Why doesnt’ NAM consider it a good thing to have nanotechnology companies work with NIOSH at this early stage, as the Post article describes.

    And finally, no one familiar with OSHA regulations or enforcement seriously considers the General Duty Clause to be a substitute for a well-thought-out regulation. It’s only useful for you as an excuse not to regulate, but then you have a fit when OSHA actually uses it (e.g. with ergonomics.)

    And Larry, surely you’re not suggesting the OSHA’s HazCom and PPE standards are an adequate substitute for a chemical standard that requires monitoring, exposure limits and the use of engineering controls. Simply doing training and slapping a respirator on someone may be what many businesses prefer, but it’s not a particularly protective way to prevent exposure to hazards, as you well know.

  • In addition to the General Duty Clause of the OSH Act, the manufacture and use of nanomaterials in the workplace are subject to the OSHA Hazard Communication Standard, the various OSHA Personal Protective Equipment standards (which include hazard assessment requirements), the OSHA Respiratory Protection Standard (which incorporates a due diligence requirement), and the OSHA Laboratory Standard. Furthermore, the manufacture of new chemicals and significant new uses of existing chemicals are subject to EPA regulatory requirements under the Toxic Substances Control Act.