Fourth industrial revolution – asbestos round two?

Date published




The fourth industrial revolution is the emerging use of radical disruptive technologies and is rapidly changing the way we live and work. These technologies offer tremendous opportunities, but the lessons of our not so distant past show that they can also represent potential risks.


Asbestos was in widespread use by the 1930s. It was heralded as a ’Miracle Dust’ and the manufacturing industry fell in love with its potential due to its desirable physical properties. Asbestos is long thin fibrous crystals that have great tensile strength, are cheap and resistant to heat, fire and electricity. Its application was widespread and its use continued to grow through most of the 20th century until its health implications became known. We are now all too aware of the fatal consequences and the impact it has had on families, employers and insurers.

Emerging technologies


Nanomaterials have incredible properties such as strength, lightness and heat-resistance and as such can have extensive and diverse applications. Nanomaterials are new and the long-term health implications of their use and the potential risk of disease are not fully realised. The parallels with asbestos are frighteningly uncanny. Carbon Nanotubes (CNTs), one version of nanomaterials, are long, thin and chemically inert. If inhaled, there is research to suggest that they pose a potentially high risk of respiratory disease causing inflammation. Sound familiar?

Material safety data sheets (MSDS) contain information on potential hazards and how to work safely with them. CNTs currently in use in UK manufacturers are described in the MSDS as either a ‘very high respiratory risk’ or ‘no known respiratory risk’. Employers base their risk assessment on these MSDS. When more is known on the consequences of CNT, should the MSDS be inadequate then it is likely that the workplace exposure limits and the risk control measures adopted by employers will also be inadequate, including the respiratory protective equipment (RPE).

Digital manufacturing

3D printing is a process of making three dimensional solid objects from a digital file. The creation of a 3D printed object is achieved using additive processes. This involves the laying down of successive layers of materials until the object is created. Besides being used for rapid prototyping, it is also used for rapid manufacturing, a new method used for short run and small batch custom manufacturing.

Much of the material currently used for 3D printing is thermoplastic filament. This material has the potential to release volatile organic compounds which are associated with respiratory risks, cancers and skin disease. The use of the materials without adequate ventilation and RPE and personal protective equipment (PPE) could give rise to long term diseases of that nature.

This issue is compounded by the profound impact that 3D printing is having on the manufacturing industry. As the cost of 3D printing goes down, this is opening up the market to small scale enterprises to join the market such that the manufacturing process will be devolved and decentralised. A reversal of the Industrial Revolution that saw large scale, volume production, will see the emergence of smaller niche companies.

The impact of this reversal is that, certainly initially, these plentiful small units may be less equipped to safeguard employers due to a likely lack of experience and unwillingness to implement regulations, which may have an adverse effect on the health of their employees.


The Control of Substances Hazardous to Health Regulations 2002 applies to these emerging risk. Already 16 years old there is a question mark over whether they adequately apply to the long term health implications of the use of novel materials. To some extent however, the regulations are not the issue as to a large extent they will be irrelevant if the MSDS and risk assessment are inadequate.

Today we are witnessing extraordinary scientific leaps with novel products reaching the market very quickly. Intense competition drives innovation and the rapid diffusion of the new technology to market is faster than ever before. It is all too easy to be swept up with the amazing opportunities that these products bring, but let us not forget the mistakes of our past.

Related items:

Read other items in the Occupational Disease Brief - September 2018