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Thomas Swan Ltd – Safety at the cutting edge

20 August 2013

Thomas Swan is an independently-owned chemical manufacturer based at Consett in Northern England. Against a background of increasing public concern about nanomaterial safety, the company is at the forefront of the chemical industry’s efforts to establish the necessary regulatory and quality standards. 

Hazardex spoke to Thomas Swan’s Advanced Materials Division Commercial Director, Dr Andy Goodwin, to understand the challenges facing the company.

“Thomas Swan delivered a strong trading and profit performance in 2012/13, despite the difficult economic climate. The business has also continued to make major investments, including a new plant for custom chemicals production,” Goodwin says. “Our record of innovation has seen us expand steadily and we are now an established presence in export markets, as well as in the UK.”

The company’s high value, speciality products are well-suited to UK production, and its advanced materials division is taking advantage of the increasing interest in the latest material technologies, including nanomaterials. Some nanomaterials are already well established in the cosmetics, pharmaceuticals and automotive sectors, and future growth markets are expected in the energy storage, energy saving, electronics, automotive and aerospace sectors.

The company today produces over 100 products, in kilogramme to multi-tonne quantities, has 165 employees and revenues of around £28 million with a product portfolio stretching from performance chemicals to advanced materials, including nanomaterials such as carbon nanotubes.

With offices and warehousing in the UK, USA and China and a global network of distributors, the company services the domestic market and exports to over 80 countries worldwide.

“Our independence has enabled us to take an innovative approach to chemical manufacturing.” says Goodwin. Working closely with leading universities, Thomas Swan has developed cutting-edge technologies including the world’s first continuous-phase supercritical fluid reactor and the UK’s first commercial-scale carbon nanotube plant.

“Whilst we are now a leading supplier to the international chemicals market, we have retained the flexibility and customer-focused approach of a family business which enables us to offer outstanding service and support to customers ranging from major multinationals to small start-ups,” he adds.

The company has three divisions - Performance Chemicals, Custom Manufacture and Advanced Materials – and makes chemical products such as tyre and rubber additives, coating additives, leather fungicides and household care products, as well as carbon nanotubes and graphene products.

The Advanced Materials division develops high value materials for emerging technologies in the composites, energy and water sectors. “We are a world leader in the manufacture of single-wall carbon nanotubes,” Goodwin points out.

There has been an increasing amount of publicity in recent years about possible problems with nano-materials.

For example Ken Donaldson, professor of respiratory toxicology at the University of Edinburgh, has carried out research into the risk that new kinds of nanofibres might pose a risk because they have a similar shape to asbestos.

Centrifuge operations
Centrifuge operations

Silver nanofibres of varying lengths were injected into the lungs of mice. Those larger than five micrometres, or five-thousandths of a millimetre, tended to become lodged in the lungs and cause inflammation. The smaller ones were cleared from the lungs.

Prof Donaldson said: "Knowing the length beyond which the tiny fibres can cause disease is important in ensuring that safe fibres are made in the future as well as helping to understand the current risk from asbestos and other fibres."

This research gives us an indication of the size of fibre that might lead to mesothelioma and other lung diseases if inhaled, and could be included in industry guidelines in future.

Goodwin says many of the ‘nano’ related stories tend to focus on the potential for negative impact and do not discuss the steps being taken by the industry to collect the necessary information and adhere to strict regulatory standards. “For carbon nanotubes," he says, "the truth is we don’t have all of the answers yet but testing is under way to find out.”  Until more is known about the effects of new materials, the company does everything possible to adhere to the highest quality, safety and environmental standards.

Certification and regulation

There is a debate currently taking place in the EU about how best to regulate nanomaterials. The current chemical regulation in the EU is REACH, but there is pressure from some nation states to have a separate regulation for nanomaterials.

France has already introduced a register for nanomaterials sold in their country, and Denmark, Belgium, Sweden, Italy and Germany are also planning inventory legislation. The EU is starting an impact assessment to explore further development of its information web-platform, which will include consideration of a Europe-wide inventory.

“Working closely with the Chemical Industry Association we actively monitor and support the development of harmonised safety standards and regulations,” says Goodwin. “REACH provides an appropriate framework for regulatory control, although some specific amendments to annexes to REACH may be required to manage nanomaterials.”

The company was the first to initiate Pre-Manufacturing Notification for carbon nanomaterials with the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) in the USA, and it is currently funding additional inhalation toxicology testing for carbon nanotubes in association with the Nanotechnology Industries Association (NIA).

“As a company that is intimately involved in the handling, production, shipment and disposal of chemicals, we take considerable care to ensure that our activities are managed and monitored in a responsible way,” says Goodwin. For example, the company does not supply carbon nanotubes to individuals - all sales are to companies or to academic institutes.

In the Advanced Materials Division, PPE includes air fed hoods and special gloves. Fume cupboards and HEPA filters ensure there is no escape of nanomaterials into the atmosphere
In the Advanced Materials Division, PPE includes air fed hoods and special gloves. Fume cupboards and HEPA filters ensure there is no escape of nanomaterials into the atmosphere

Thomas Swan was the first company to receive accreditation for the production of nanomaterials from AssuredNano, a voluntary Safety, Health and Environment (SHE) accreditation scheme for the sector.

It was also one of the first chemical companies to be certified to ISO14001 and ISO9001, is a long standing signatory of the Chemical Industries Association’s Responsible Care programme and in 2000 became the first company in the UK to gain external verification of its Responsible Care management system.

The company’s registration to OHSAS 18001 ensures it has an occupational health and safety management system to minimise risk to its employees during the course of their normal duties. 

Thomas Swan has an integrated corporate Operational Management System which supports delivery and implementation of corporate policy on Quality, Health, Safety and Environmental. This system defines processes and procedures for all QHSE aspects, including safety & security. 

The importance of collaboration

“The main challenge for us as a small/medium size enterprise (SME) is the high cost of toxicology and environmental testing. We prefer to work through collaborative organisations such as the NIA where costs can be shared and results effectively disseminated,” he adds.

Analysis on the nanoscale is intrinsically complex and expensive, with high resolution techniques such as TEM (Transmission Electron Microscopy) and AFM (Atomic Force Microscopy) being required. SMEs do not usually have access to these techniques in-house.  Manufacturers typically use bulk measurement for quality control; which can be enhanced by microscopic tools. 

Small changes in surface chemistry, particle shape and area, or chemical impurities can greatly influence material performance in the application.  This makes it difficult to establish specifications for the products that relate to the end-use performance of the materials.  To respond to these quality challenges, Thomas Swan works closely with customers to ensure testing protocols satisfy performance criteria. It also organises additional testing using outside laboratories and invests in in-house test equipment for established products.

Another important method of improving knowledge of advanced materials is sharing data and test methods with other companies, through seminars and industry presentations.  For example, the company’s Regulatory Affairs Manager gave a presentation on Quality and Regulatory Affairs for Carbon Nanomaterials at the NanoKTN Standards and Regulations for Nanotechnologies conference in March 2013.  It also monitors and engages with academic researchers who are active in the field of nanomaterial safety and interpret the impact on our activities.

Workforce safety

New plant for speciality chemicals manufacturing
New plant for speciality chemicals manufacturing

“Thomas Swan works hard to ensure the nanomaterials we produce are safely handled by our workforce,” says Goodwin.

The company’s occupational hygiene protection and compliance is guided by HSE in the UK and by OSHA in the USA. Regular dialogue with the HSE and Health & Safety Laboratory (HSL) has also proved useful, and the company welcomes the HSE to audit its facilities and review findings.

“We find our interactions with the HSE very useful and constructive. In the initial set-up of our nanomaterials business we consulted very closely and implemented all of their recommendations. We invited HSL to our Consett site to validate protective and ventilation systems. HSL made recommendations for improvement, all of which were implemented. Subsequently, we have performed additional occupational health monitoring which confirmed we are operating within recommended exposure limits.”

There is constant workplace monitoring and occupational health screening at our nanomaterial facilities, says Goodwin. 

“We strictly adhere to all Health & Safety Executive requirements, including compliance to the the Control of substances hazardous to health (COSHH) regulations. Every substance we use or manufacture on site is subjected to a COSHH risk assessment before it is used.

“We consider that COSHH plays a vital role in assessing and controlling chemical risk and is essential in protecting our workforce. Knowing the potential hazards, we then identify potential risks and implement appropriate risk control measures to mitigate the risk. In the case of novel chemical materials where the hazard is not yet fully understood, we liaise directly with the HSE and follow their advice.

“For example, in our Nanomaterials Laboratory we have a strict regime of controlled ventilation and personal protective equipment which our employees use when handling novel chemical materials, such as carbon nanotubes. The operators that work with potentially hazardous materials are trained in all aspects of handling (wearing of PPE, maintenance and testing of PPE, disposal of waste, disposal of used PPE). Access to these areas is restricted to operators with appropriate training.”

By paying close attention to best practice, working closely with regulators and keeping ahead of the technological curve, Goodwin says Thomas Swan is well-placed for further expansion in the advanced materials sector. The relatively compact size of the company is an advantage, enabling it to remain fleet-footed and flexible when reacting to new opportunities.

Thomas Swan has gained a reputation as one of Britain's most innovative companies, and it should continue to play an important role in helping define the standards that will govern the use of nanomaterials into the future. 

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