Challenges of Health and Safety in an R&D Environment

R&D is extremely varied and includes projects in biological, organic and inorganic chemistry, traditional physics and biophysics, telecommunications, acoustics, meteorology, superconductivity materials, satellite, communications, and a host of computer and laser applications. The variety of chemical substances potentially on hand is limited only by the imagination of researchers1 and a major challenge to the Environmental Health and Safety (EH&S) organization is therefore hazard identification and control. Industrial hygienists, toxicologists, health physicists, safety engineers, ergonomists, biosafety, and occupational nurses and physicians work cooperatively with researchers to identify hazards, to substitute with less toxic materials, and to design processes to eliminate chemical and physical hazards.

Hazard identification and control is part of an overall process of chemical, physical and biological substance control that addresses health, safety, environmental, and regulatory issues. The EH&S review and written approval required for all chemical acquisitions and transfers ensures evaluation of work practices (including training), engineering controls (including toxic gas monitoring operation and calibration), personal protective equipment, quantities on hand and storage conditions, environmental controls (e.g., exhaust stack scrubbers), and contingency plans. In support of proper personal protective equipment selection and use, glove permeation and quantitative respirator fit testing capabilities are maintained in the Industrial Hygiene Laboratory. The EH&S review and approval process leads naturally to a close working relationship with the R&D community: industrial hygienists, toxicologists, and health physicists meet routinely with technical personnel to communicate chemical-specific information, to develop substitute materials, and to participate in experimental design.

Toxicology resources, an integral part of EH&S interface with the R&D community, also support compliance with regulations under OSHA, e.g., the Laboratory Standard, and under the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), e.g., the Toxic Substances Control Act (TSCA). Health physicists participate in the review and approval process for substances and processes regulated by the Nuclear Regulatory Commission and by state and local authorities. In support of compliance with environmentally oriented federal, state, and local requirements, a barcode-based computerized inventory system tracks all chemical containers from requisition to recycling or disposal2. This computerized inventory also provides a means to identify specific users when additional health and safety information becomes available or when new regulations become applicable.

Toxicologists originate and maintain appropriate and necessary lists of chemicals of health and safety concern. Weight-of-evidence approaches are used for hazard identification because it is rare that regulatory criteria such as that for the OSHA Laboratory Standard’s “select” carcinogens are available. Among the references on which toxicologists rely are on-line databases of the National Library of Medicine (NLM), including DART (Developmental and Reproductive Toxicity database), ETICBACK (Environmental Teratology Information Center backfile), IRIS (Integrated Risk Information System), and TOXLINE (database of toxicology references). The NLM is also a useful reference for TSCA test submissions, which can then be obtained through Freedom of Information Act requests. Emerging information not in the public domain is often obtained by working closely with colleagues at chemical manufacturers and suppliers; nondisclosure agreements may be prudent prerequisite for such information sharing.

The weight-of evidence toxicology judgements are applied to the workplace by integrating an industrial hygienist’s evaluation of the nature, frequency, and quantities of use, work practices and engineering controls, and historical knowledge of the involved individuals(s). A performance-based approach to hazard identification and control is more applicable to a diverse R&D environment than is a rigid program premised on worker exposure levels.  When appropriate, specific exposure levels may be referenced or developed during technology transfer to a pilot plant or manufacturing environment. Although the performance-based approach is generally implemented, some chemicals have been identified and listed as reproductive and/or developmental hazards.

Effective risk communication is particularly challenging when dealing with a strongly emotional subject such as reproductive and developmental health. In an R&D environment, where little may be known about a chemical substance in use, effective communication is extremely important. The health and safety professional’s goal is to ensure that each employee’s understanding and perception of risk (really, relative or incremental risk) are based on relevant information and on knowledge of the principles of hazard, exposure, and risk. In support of this goal, continuing education and training is encouraged and supported at all levels of management.

To discuss these and other EHS management issues, please contact:

Mike Glowatz, MS, MEd, CIH, CSP
Senior Consultant



1  Hans, M.: Control Chemical Hazards at Work. Safety Health 145(5):44-48 (1992).

2 Navarrete, R.J.: Tracking Chemicals and Material Safety Data Sheets for Regulatory and Safety Processes. SSA J. June:57-60 (1992).

Abstract from “A Comprehensive Reproductive Health Program in the Workplace”:

Brooks, L., Merkel, S. F., Glowatz, M., Comstock, M. L., Shoner, L.G.: A Comprehensive Reproductive Health Program in the Workplace. American Industrial hygiene Association J.55(4):352-357 (1994).

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