Non-Ionizing Radiation: Raising Awareness of Health & Safety Hazards for an Older Workforce

By Matthew H. Smith, Senior Health Physicist, NV5

It’s no secret that our workforce is getting older, a trend that is affecting some market sectors more than others. The Bureau of Labor Statistics estimates that the median age in manufacturing, for instance, is 44.5 while transportation and utilities sectors show a median age around 45.2, well above the overall workforce median age of 42.2.1 While an older workforce certainly has some advantages for any employer that relies on skilled personnel who exhibit experience, knowledge and work ethic, it also raises the chance of health and safety risks that were previously of limited concern.

Specifically, industrial hygienists and health physicists have noted a rise in questions and concerns about non-ionizing radiation (NIR) and its potential effect on implanted medical devices, such as cardiac pacemakers, defibrillators, insulin pumps, and similar electronic devices that are more common in those over 50. NIR sources are found across a wide spectrum of operations, from power generating centers to large manufacturing facilities to waste management companies. Specific equipment that emits NIR might include high-voltage transformers and cables, welding equipment and a variety of radio frequency emitting systems.

In today’s environment, there’s a much higher chance that one or more of a working population will have a medically implanted device, which increases employee and employer concerns about hazards. Identifying, addressing and controlling potential NIR hazards in work environments requires sound technical knowledge and focused attention.

At the Source
Many modern pacemakers and implanted cardiac defibrillators are built to handle external electromagnetic fields; however, documentation from doctors and manufacturers reminds employers and employees that health and safety risks still exist.

In addition to the emitters mentioned above, other potential NIR sources of concern could be:

• Devices emitting static (DC) magnetic fields (MRI, DC welding equipment, motor components, etc.);
• Interior cellular phone network repeaters; and
• Radio frequency welding equipment (such as heat sealers and dielectric heaters)

Any facility that relies on equipment that generates an elevated magnetic and/or electric field could see a rise in questions and concerns about NIR effects from the workforce. Many NIR concerns are brought to light when an employee brings a doctor’s letter to the attention of their employer’s health and safety professionals or industrial hygiene department.

With increasingly leaner operations, health and safety professionals will often look to outside expert consultants to evaluate and resolve NIR concerns. For example, we recently completed NIR assessments at a national waste management company, a major vehicle manufacturer, and a medium sized utility.

Whether the NIR evaluator is internal or external, a verifiable history of NIR assessments should be requested from the evaluator since the experience needed for these measurements is very specialized–even for certified industrial hygienists and health physicists.

Assessment and Resolution

NIR evaluations, with respect to medical implant safety, should follow these six steps2:

1. Identify the potential issue (e.g., employee concern due to information on implant provided by doctor or manufacturer)
2. Determine what safety criteria to use (safety criteria are often provided by the medical implant manufacturer)
3. Determine the potential NIR sources in the working environment
4. Evaluate the emissions from the NIR sources with respect to the criteria in Step 2
5. Based on Step 4, determine if a safety hazard exists
6. If needed, implement controls to mitigate a safety hazard

Once the first two steps are initiated, the real work begins. To facilitate Step 3, the NIR evaluator should query the local health and safety professionals regarding equipment and processes in the employee’s environment that could exceed the criteria in Step 2. Since many health and safety professionals may not know all the types of equipment of concern, the evaluator should provide examples. Newer equipment will likely have pacemaker safety labeling or information in the operations manual. Older equipment may not have the latest safety notifications in place and could be less likely to have engineering controls built-in that reduce NIR emissions.

Evaluating emissions (Step 4) may involve a combination of activities involving the gathering of information from the emitter vendor, emission calculations and field measurements of emissions (i.e., an NIR survey). Field measurements,when performed with high-quality, calibrated equipment, often lead to the most defensible results with respect to compliance. In addition, when measurements are performed with local safety professionals and employees present, the concerns regarding medical implant safety can be addressed in a direct and comprehensive manner.

If issues with compliance are found (Step 5), engineering (NIR shielding) or administrative controls (posting, labeling, exclusion zones, awareness training) will need to be implemented (Step 6). Again, direct interaction between the evaluator, local safety professionals, and employees will lead to better acceptance of the recommendations that result from actions in Step 6.

A final report from the evaluator should outline all findings and actions driven by the six steps given above. The bottom lineof the NIR evaluator’s job (and the goal of the work we have done with clients on this topic) is to deliver solutions that improve the lives of the client’s staff by providing guidance that allows the employees to perform their job in a safe environment.

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About the Author
Matthew H. Smith is the manager of the NV5/Dade Moeller Training Academy, which specializes in radiation and occupational safety training. He has extensive experience in training federal and private sector professionals on radiological safety and detection topics. Smith has supported more than 200 training courses for the U.S. Customs and Border Protection, U.S. Department of Energy Second Line of Defense Program and the U.S. State Department. He’s provided instruction on the use of radiation survey devices, hand-held radioisotope identifiers, and radiation portal monitor systems and provided non-ionizing radiation expertise for the National Labs, U.S. Department of Defense, National Aeronautics and Space Administration’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, and several commercial clients. In addition to training, Smith supports the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health’s radiation dose reconstruction program as a principal external dosimetrist.

1. https://www.bls.gov/cps/cpsaat18b.htm
2. Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE). 2014. IEEE Recommended Practice for Radio Frequency Safety Programs, 3 kHz to 300 GHz. C95.7-2014.

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