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RM/I Industry’s Role in Managing Nanotechnology Risks

George Pearson is President of and Principal Consultant for Pearson Safety Management Consulting, Inc. (PSM Consulting) and a longtime member of ASSE’s Risk Management/Insurance (RM/I) Practice Specialty. He is also the incoming Vice President of ASSE’s Council on Practices and Standards (CoPS).

Pearson recently wrote two whitepapers on nanotechnology risks and their costs. In this interview, he describes how he developed these whitepapers and explains why it is important for the RM/I industry to evaluate and understand the risks of nanotechnology.

Please provide a brief description of your professional background and of PSM Consulting.

PSM Consulting is a safety and risk control consultancy that has provided services to governments and the private sector since 2001. I formed this organization to serve as a platform to reach out to organizations with health, safety and loss control support. I have held top-level safety management positions in manufacturing, insurance services, international chemical processing, and most recently, wireless telecommunications.

A main interest of mine is advanced technology. I have worked for technology companies for the past 26 years, and I am interested in new and exciting state-of-the art products, systems and processes. I worked with the introduction of robots to the workplace in the 1980s, was involved in implementing process safety compliance programs in the 1990s, and for the past nine years, have worked in wireless telecommunications. In just a few years, wireless telecommunications has experienced rapid growth and tremendous advances in technology. The industry has achieved more bandwidth, faster connectivity and smaller, more functional phones. Technology advancements have brought us many good things, but experience has taught me that we must take care to fully understand their risks.

You have written two whitepapers on nanotechnology risks and their costs. How did you conduct your research for these whitepapers? Did you encounter any challenges or make any new discoveries? 

At the time, I was Administrator of ASSE’s RM/I Practice Specialty, and we wanted to investigate nanotechnology for the benefit of RM/I members. There were three driving factors—responding to a need to know, building on the body of knowledge and my own natural curiosity.

It was tough to reach a point where our team’s thoughts would crystallize, and it could have become a more drawn-out process. However, the RM/I Practice Specialty was committed to producing a piece that not only highlighted the issue, but also provided guidance.

I believe this differentiated the whitepapers from others. Most nanotechnology articles addressed only the unknown health and safety effects, and they all seemed to call for more research. Millions of workers currently help produce products, research applications and handle waste streams containing nanoengineered materials, and they are the ones exposed to the hazards now. We wanted to give the RM/I Practice Specialty members useful and tangible guidance.

The flux of technology was another factor—new products and processes are added everyday. We needed a freeze-frame or snapshot of nanotechnology to write about it.

I organized a detailed outline based on five steps: state the issue, describe why it is an issue, list the alternative courses of future actions, make recommendations and state a vision for the future—a benchmark to measure success in the future, if you will. This idea came to me when I was stuck at O’Hare International Airport in Chicago, IL thanks to a canceled flight. The delay gave me plenty of time to think and organize my thoughts to begin filling in the outline.

During this process, I discovered that the key to resolving our conundrum was to work with my colleagues, brainstorm with team members and talk things through. I took advantage of networking opportunities rather than work alone, which helped move the project forward. This illustrated the value of benchmarking and networking found in an affiliation with an ASSE practice specialty.

Why is it important for the RM/I industry to have risk evaluation guidelines for nanotechnology?

In 2004 and 2006, Swiss Re and Allianz produced two major insurance industry reports, respectively. Both of these major European-based insurance conglomerates called for further research to learn more about the risks of nanotechnology. On the surface, it appeared that the insurance industry would take a wait-and-see approach concerning expected claims and underwriting strategy. In fact, that advice was specifically contained in both industry reports. This meant insurance for nanotechnology risks could be difficult to obtain and/or become expensive at best because insurers could not foresee the risk.

Further, I learned that domestic U.S. insurers are conducting their own research. They seem to be more or less pragmatic but willing to take prudent risks into areas in which they are familiar and to present themselves as a viable risk financing facility. They will rely heavily on their own internal risk control expertise and will probably be very selective with which risks they choose to insure. These companies and their own in-house loss control professionals will need guidance. Who better than the RM/I Practice Specialty leadership to provide it?

Has the RM/I industry established any official protocol or process for assessing nanotechnology risks? Why or why not?

I do not think so, not yet. My whitepaper has contributed to the body of knowledge in this regard. I believe the RM/I industries are generally tentative, prudent and pragmatic.

Some enlightened organizations could have guidelines that mimic workplace controls based on conventional engineering and work practice solutions. These might include improved exhaust ventilation using HEPA filtrations systems and the use of N-95 particulate respirators, as NIOSH recommends for today’s nanotechnology risks. The problem comes as technology advances and particle size decreases. Today’s controls may not be effective tomorrow.

As uncertainty looms, we may find ourselves with an overly conservative wait-and-see insurance market strategy. This could also make it difficult to develop a sustainable risk control protocol, particularly without the data research can provide.

How does the RM/I industry track nanotechnology developments? How does it stay abreast of the latest nanotechnology research?

The RM/I Practice Specialty has a diverse Advisory Committee that gathers input from RM/I Practice Specialty members who work for insurers, brokers and organizations with risk and insurance interests. NIOSH is the lead federal agency, which makes for a good source of information and research developments. These are excellent resources, but nanotechnology is a moving target that is hard to keep nailed down.

For example, over 609 consumer products contain nanoengineered materials to date, according to the Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies at the Woodrow Wilson Internal Center for Scholars. Last June, there were less than 400. They report that this list grows by three to four products per day. I think ASSE should form a cross-functional taskforce to keep on top of nanotechnology. A list of resources is given at the end of this interview, which can be used for additional research.

You are a past Administrator of ASSE’s RM/I Practice Specialty and a longtime RM/I Practice Specialty member. What nanotechnology issues do you find are most important to the RM/I membership?

I think the central issue for the RM/I Practice Specialty membership is keeping up with nanotechnology. It is a highly dynamic area, and the challenge is to integrate what we learn from research and to put it into practice. There are constant changes, new applications and new products.

Another key issue is how business and the public will react to the developing information. The International Council on Nanotechnology is a consortium of experts from the public and private sectors that includes Consumer Union. In 2006, they released a survey of 64 nanomaterial manufacturers and labs. The results revealed that about 38% believed their nanomaterials posed no special risks, and another 22% did not know if they did. If they do not know, how can they act?

At a 2006 congressional hearing, one consumer products executive said, “You won’t hear us talking about nanotech or advertising it in any way. That’s our strategy for dealing with potential negative publicity.” The challenge for RM/I and for other practice specialties is to increase awareness and to overcome ignorance and apathy. We can do this by increasing the body of knowledge on the risks and controls concerning nanotechnology.

In your opinion, what must be done to ensure that the RM/I industry is continually informed of potential nanotechnology risks?

We must keep up with the work underway in the private and governmental sectors. We should not compartmentalize the issue of nanotechnology as solely an RM/I issue. Thirteen practice specialties make up the CoPS, and several have or should have interest here. The RM/I Practice Specialty should team with other practice specialties to keep members apprised of new developments, and ASSE should establish a cross-functional taskforce to address emerging technologies.

ASSE’s Standards Development Committee has also expressed interest in my whitepapers and sees a need for an ANSI standard in nanotechnology.

ASSE Nanotechnology Resources

Articles & Reports

Government Resources

  • National NanoTechnology Initiative

http://www.nano.gov/

  • NIOSH NanoTechnology Website

http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/nanotech/default.html

  • NIOSH Update: Focus On Nanotechnology: Web Newsletter Reports New NIOSH Research Developments

http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/updates/upd-07-26-05.html

  • NIOSH: Nanotechnology and Occupational Safety and Health Research Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)

http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/updates/upd-07-26-05.html

  • NIOSH Position Statement on Nanotechnology: Advancing Research on Occupational Health Implications and Applications

http://www.cdc.gov/niosh/topics/nanotech/position.html

  • National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST)

http://www.nist.gov/public_affairs/nanotech.htm

  • Food and Drug Administration Nanotechnology Website

http://www.fda.gov/nanotechnology/

  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA)

http://es.epa.gov/ncer/publications/nano/index.html

  • Project on Emerging Nanotechnologies

http://www.nanotechproject.org/index.php?id=44

Biography

George W. Pearson, CSP, ARM is President of Pearson Safety Management Consulting, Inc. (PSM Consulting), a safety and risk control consultancy that has provided services to government and private sector organizations since 2001. He has worked for high technology companies for 26 years in corporate-level leadership positions. Most recently, he served as the Health and Safety Manager for SunCom Wireless.

Previously, Pearson was the Health and Safety Manager, North America for Albright & Wilson Americas, an international chemical producer specializing in inorganic and organic phosphorus-based chemical manufacturing. He was also the National Safety Director for Waite Hill Services, Figgie International’s insurance division. While at Waite Hill, Pearson directed safety and risk control services for Figgie’s 40 operating divisions, Waite Hill’s underwriting operations and its insurance customers.

From 2005-2007, Pearson served as Administrator of ASSE’s RM/I Practice Specialty. He is also a founding member of the International Practice Specialty.

He has published several articles and whitepapers, has spoken at ASSE’s Professional Development Conferences and has been an ASSE Webinar speaker. He is a 2007 recipient of ASSE’s Culbertson Award for Outstanding Volunteer Service and the recipient of four Safety Professional of the Year (SPY) Awards, including the CoPS SPY.

Pearson has been an ASSE member for 34 years and currently serves on the Society’s PDC Planning Committee.

He holds a master of arts degree in safety management from New York University’s School of Education and a bachelor degree from Fordham University.