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Non-Ionizing Radiation: Raising Awareness of Health & Safety Hazards

Non-Ionizing Radiation: Raising Awareness of Health & Safety Hazards

By Matthew H. Smith

The much-anticipated rollout of 5G wireless networks promises speeds and connectivity that will usher in a completely new technological era. However, for some personnel with implanted medical devices such as pacemakers, defibrillators, and insulin pumps, the rollout of 5G may be of concern. That’s because there has been increasing questions regarding the health and safety of non-ionizing radiation with respect to exposure of personnel with implanted medical devices, which may include the potential effects of these newer wireless network systems.

An aging workforce 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 age 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 addition to existing NIR sources, the next generation of cellular service – 5G – is beginning to roll out. Due to the high-frequency emission characteristics of this service, there will be a need for more base stations – installed in a wide variety of locations much closer to worker populations.

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.

Assessment and Resolution

NIR evaluations, with respect to medical implant safety – and potential 5G systems in the work environment – should follow these six steps:

  1. Identify the potential issue
  2. Determine what safety criteria to use
  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

Step 1

At this initial step, identify the potential issue. This can include an employee concern due to information on implant provided by a doctor or manufacturing, or concerns regarding 5G emitters in the workplace.

Step 2

Often, the safety criteria are provided by the medical implant manufacturer. It is important to note in this step that 5G systems will need to be installed per FCC safety criteria.  In addition, there will be updated NIR safety guidance issued later this year by the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE) and International Commission on Non-Ionizing Radiation Protection (ICNIRP). Once the first two steps are initiated, the real work begins.

Step 3

To facilitate this step, 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.

Step 4

Evaluating emissions 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). Regarding 5G systems, the system owner should be able to show compliance with FCC regulations via calculations or measurements.  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.

Step 5

After an evaluation, determine if there are compliance issues. If so, engineering (NIR shielding) or administrative controls (posting, labeling, exclusion zones, awareness training) will need to be implemented.

Step 6

In mitigating the safety hazards found, direct interaction between the evaluator, local safety professionals, and employees will lead to better acceptance of recommendations and actions.

A final report from the evaluator should outline all findings and actions driven by the six steps given above. The bottom line of the NIR evaluator’s job 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.

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. Contact him at matt.smith@nv5.com.