Radiation Protection Basics

What is Radiation Protection?

Radiation protection, or radiation safety, is an umbrella term encompassing the actions of using best practices when working around radioactive materials. Radiation exposure causes serious illness and/or permanent damage if people aren’t informed and/or protected from ionizing radiation. In worst case scenarios, overexposure to radiation is fatal.

The goal of radiation protection or safety is to:

  • Inform and educate those who work with or around radioactive materials
  • Shield individuals from harmful radiation exposure
  • Efficiently clean radiation spills using best practices
  • Treat contaminated individuals to protect them from further harm


Why is Radiation So Dangerous?

First, we must be clear that not all radiation is dangerous. For example, the sun is radioactive, and we receive UV radiation from its rays. While this will cause sunburn – and can eventually cause skin cancer (typically not fatal) – it isn’t ultimately considered a threat to human life. The same is true for other everyday sources of radiation such as microwaves or visible light rays. Ionizing radiation, however, is a different story.

Ionizing radiation is a type of particle or electromagnetic energy so powerful it causes atoms to lose an electron. This occurs with both gamma rays and X-rays. When humans or other living things are overexposed to ionizing radiation, the process of losing electrons negatively impacts cells by irreversibly changing their DNA.

Over time, we’ve learned quite a bit about radiation exposure limits and workplace safety policies are established accordingly. Health- or life-threatening effects of radiation can occur over the long-term, via smaller exposure amounts, or in the short-term, via larger, acute doses of radiation. Thus, radiation shielding is designed to protect humans from both types of exposure.

Radiation exposure can lead to:

  • Radiation burns
  • Radiation sickness
  • Premature aging
  • Cancer and other chronic health conditions

Because radiation can’t usually be seen, smelled or tasted, it’s easy for employees to forget they’re working in a dangerous environment. That’s why the implementation of a company-wide safety program, and maintaining a “safety always” culture is so important for those who work in a radioactive career or environment.

Radiation Protection Basics

Radiation protection is divided into three basic concepts: Time, Distance and Shielding

The consideration of these three points, and the nature of the product or work you are performing, allows radiation safety officers (RSOs) to create an appropriate safety program for your workplace.

  1. Time. You can be exposed to radiation externally or internally (typically via inhalation and/or ingestion). The longer you are exposed to radiation the greater the risk, so the first emphasis is placed on minimizing the amount of time an individual is exposed to a radioactive source.
  2. Distance. Risk is also proportional to your proximity to a radioactive source. So, the next level of emphasis is placed on putting maximum distance between humans and the source. Doubling the distance between a person’s body and the source of radiation divides their exposure by a factor of four; halving the distance between a person and a radiation source increases exposure by a factor of 4.
  3. Shielding. Certain materials, such a lead, lead composites or lead-free composites absorb radiation and prevent it from getting through to the other side of the barrier. These are called radiation shielding materials. In some cases, shielding may also serve as the distance between you and the radiation source so the type and quality of the shielding products is very important whenever you work in direct contact with a radioactive source.

For some, this might be as simple as a pair of gloves and safety glasses. In other case, shielding may require the use of a full suit, tent and/or ventilation units.Your radiation safety officer should work with management to maintain a safe working environment. This is often done by taking an ALARA approach.

What is ALARA?

ALARA stands for “As Low As Reasonably Achievable,” and should serve as a mantra for any safety program established in a radioactive workplace. The concept was originally created by the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP).

Read ALARA: What Is It and What Can It Do For You, to learn more about it. Ultimately, ALARA serves as both a principle for radiation protection as well as a regulatory requirement for all radiation safety programs.

Pay Attention to Occupational Dose Limits

Monitoring exposure limits – or occupational dose limits – is part of an ALARA program and ensures radiation doses remain “as low as reasonably achievable” at all times and for all personnel. While there are legal limits regarding radiation exposure, the government maintains standards for separate occupational dose limits, which are lower than the legal maximums in order to err on the conservative side.

The Nuclear Regulatory Committee sets these doses as follows:

Whole body – 5000 millirem
Extremities – 5000 millirem
Lens of the Eye – 15,000 millirem
Fetus – 500 millirem
Members of the general public – 100 millirem

Radiation Shielding is Your Best Friend and Defense

Radiation shielding comes in many forms. The most common types are lead aprons or blankets, lead eye glasses and/or lead gloves and sleeves. If you work in a radioactive work environment, we recommend contacting a company specializing radiation shielding products to determine which products will provide the greatest level of protection for yourself and/or your employees.

While there’s no need to over-protect, no employer every wants to find out their employees are under-protected as the results can cause serious health risks. Please feel free to contact Lancs Industries to discuss your workplace so we can establish the best line of defense.

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