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Radiation Risk From Occupational Exposure


These FAQ's are based on the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission's Regulatory Guide 8.29, Revision I.


This instructional material is intended to provide the user with the best available information about the health risks from occupational exposure to ionizing radiation. Ionizing radiation consists of energy or small particles, such as gamma rays and beta and alpha particles, emitted from radioactive materials, which can cause chemical or physical damage when they deposit energy in living tissue. A question and answer format is used. Many of the questions or subjects were developed by the NRC staff in consultation with workers, union representatives, and licensee representatives experienced in radiation protection training. 


This Revision I to Regulatory Guide 8.29 updates the material in the original guide on biological effects and risks and on typical occupational exposure. Additionally, it conforms to the revised 10 CFR Part 20, "Standards for Protection Against Radiation" and to Part 4 of the "Colorado Rules and Regulations Pertaining to Radiation Control". The information in this appendix is intended to help develop respect by workers for the risks associated with radiation, rather than unjustified fear or lack of concern.



A health risk is generally thought of as something that may endanger health. Scientists consider health risk to be the statistical probability or mathematical chance that personal injury, illness, or death may result from some action. Most people do not think about health risks in terms of mathematics. Instead, most of us consider the health risk of a particular action in terms of whether we believe that particular action will, or will not, cause us some harm. The intent of this appendix is to provide estimates of, and explain the bases for, the risk of injury, illness, or death from occupational radiation exposure. Risk can be quantified in terms of the probability of a health effect per unit of dose received. 


When x-rays, gamma rays, and ionizing particles interact with living materials such as our bodies, they may deposit enough energy to cause biological damage. Radiation can cause several different types of events such as the very small physical displacement of molecules, changing a molecule to a different form, or ionization, which is the removal of electrons from atoms and molecules. When the quantity of radiation energy deposited in living tissue is high enough, biological damage can occur as a result of chemical bonds being broken and cells being damaged or killed. These effects can result in observable clinical symptoms. 


The basic unit for measuring absorbed radiation is the rad. One rad (0.01 gray in the International System of units) equals the absorption of 100 ergs (a small but measurable amount of energy) in a gram of material such as tissue exposed to radiation. To reflect biological risk, rads must be converted to rems. The new international unit is the sievert (100 rems = 1 Sv). This conversion accounts for the differences in the effectiveness of different types of radiation in causing damage. The rem is used to estimate biological risk. For beta and gamma radiation, a rem is considered equal to a rad.


 A worker's occupational dose may be caused by exposure to radiation that originates outside the body, called 'external exposure', or by exposure to radiation from radioactive material that has been taken into the body, called 'internal exposure' Most licensed activities involve little, if any, internal exposure. It is the current scientific consensus that a rem of radiation dose has the same biological risk regardless of whether it is from an external or an internal source. Regulations require that dose from external exposure and dose from internal exposure be added together, if each exceeds 10% of the annual limit, and that the total be within occupational limits. The sum of external and internal dose is called the total effective dose equivalent (TEDE) and is expressed in units of rems (Sv).  


Although unlikely, radioactive materials may enter the body through breathing, eating, drinking, or open wounds, or they may be absorbed through the skin. The intake of radioactive materials by workers 's generally due to breathing contaminated air. Radioactive materials may be present as fine dust or gases in the workplace atmosphere. The surfaces of equipment and workbenches may be contaminated, and these materials can be resuspended in air during work activities.


If any radioactive material enters the body, the material goes to various organs or is excreted, depending on the biochemistry of the material. Most radioisotopes are excreted from the body in a few days. For example, a fraction of any uranium taken into the body will deposit in the bones, where it remains for a longer time. Uranium is slowly eliminated from the body, mostly by way of the kidneys. Most workers are not exposed to uranium. Radioactive iodine is preferentially deposited in the thyroid gland, which is located in the neck. 


To limit risk to specific organs and the total body, an annual limit on intake (ALI) has been established or each radionuclide. When more than one radionuclide is involved, the intake amount of each radionuclide is reduced proportionally. NRC regulations specify the concentrations of radioactive material in the air for which a worker may be exposed for 2,000 working hours in a year. These concentrations are termed the derived air concentrations (DACs). These limits are the total amounts allowed if no external radiation is received. The resulting dose from the internal radiation sources (from breathing air at 1 DAC) is the maximum allowed to an organ or to the worker's whole body. 



 Acute radiation dose usually refers to a large dose of radiation received in a short period of time. Chronic dose refers to the sum of small doses received repeatedly over long time periods, for example, 20 mrem (or millirem, which is 1 thousandth of a rem) (0.2 mSv) per week every week for several years. It is assumed for radiation protection purposes that any radiation dose, either acute or chronic, may cause delayed effects. However, only large acute doses cause early effects; chronic doses within the occupational dose limits do not cause early effects. Since the NRC limits do not permit large acute doses, concern with occupational radiation risk is primarily focused on controlling chronic exposure for which possible delayed effects, such as cancer, are of concern. 


The difference between acute and chronic radiation exposure can be shown by using exposure to the sun's rays as an example. An intense exposure to the sun can result in painful burning, peeling, and growing of new skin. However, repeated short exposures provide time for the skin to be repaired between exposures. Whether exposure to the sun's rays is long term or spread over short periods. some of the injury may not be repaired and may eventually result in skin cancer. 


Cataracts are an interesting case because they can be caused by both acute and chronic radiation. A certain threshold level of dose to the lens of the eye is required before there is any observable visual impairment, and the impairment remains after the exposure is stopped. The threshold for cataract development from acute exposure is an acute dose of the order of 100 rads (1 Gy). Further, a cumulative dose of 800 rads (8 Gy) from protracted exposures over many years to the lens of the eye has been linked to some level of visual impairment. These doses exceed the amount that may be accumulated by the lens from normal occupational exposure under the current regulations.



The mechanisms of radiation induced cancer are not completely understood. When radiation interacts with the cells of our bodies, a number of events can occur. The damaged cells can repair themselves and permanent damage is not caused. The cells can die, much like the large numbers of cells that die every day in our bodies, and be replaced through the normal biological processes. Or a change can occur in the cell's reproductive structure, the cells can mutate and subsequently be repaired without effect, or they can form pre cancerous cells, which may become cancerous. Radiation is only one of many agents with the potential for causing cancer, and cancer caused by radiation cannot be distinguished from cancer attributable to any other cause. 


Radiobiologists have studied the relationship between large doses of radiation and cancer. These studies indicate that damage or change to genes in the cell nucleus is the main cause of radiation induced cancer. This damage may occur directly through the interaction of the ionizing radiation in the cell or indirectly through the actions of chemical products produced by radiation interactions within cells. Cells are able to repair most damage within hours; however, some cells may not be repaired properly. Such misrepaired damage is thought to be the origin of cancer, but misrepair does not always cause cancer. Some cell changes are benign or the cell may die; these changes do not lead to cancer. 


Many factors such as age, general health, inherited traits, sex, as well as exposure to other cancer causing agents such as cigarette smoke can affect susceptibility to the cancer-causing effects of radiation. Many diseases are caused by the interaction of several factors, and these interactions appear to increase the susceptibility to cancer. 



Radiation risk estimates were developed by several national and international scientific organizations over the last 40 years. These organizations include the National Academy of Sciences (which has issued several reports from the Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiations (BEIR), the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP), the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), and the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR). Each of these organizations continues to review new research findings on radiation health risks. 


Several reports from these organizations present new findings on radiation risks based upon revised estimates of radiation dose to survivors of the atomic bombing at Hiroshima and Nagasaki. For example, the United Nations Scientific Committee on the Effects of Atomic Radiation (UNSCEAR) published risk estimates in 1988 and 1993. The National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) also published a report in 1988, "New Dosimetry at Hiroshima and Nagasaki and Its Implications for Risk Estimates. In January 1990, the National Academy of Sciences released the fifth report of the Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiations (BEIR), " Health Effects of Exposure to Low Levels of Ionizing Radiation" . Each of these publications also provides extensive bibliographies on other published studies concerning radiation health effects for those who may wish to read further on this subject.  



We don't know exactly what the chances are of getting cancer from a low-level radiation dose, primarily because the few effects that may occur cannot be distinguished from normally occurring cancers. However, we can make estimates based on extrapolation from extensive knowledge from scientific research on high dose effects. The estimates of radiation effects at high doses are better known than are those of most chemical carcinogens. 


From currently available data, the NRC has adopted a risk value for an occupational dose of 1 rem (0.01 Sv) Total Effective Dose Equivalent (TEDE) of 4 in 10,000 of developing a fatal cancer, or approximately 1 chance in 2,500 of fatal cancer per rem of total effective dose equivalent (TEDE) received. The uncertainty associated with this risk estimate does not rule out the possibility of higher risk, or the possibility that the risk may even be zero at low occupational doses and dose rates. 


The radiation risk incurred by a worker depends on the amount of dose received. Under the linear model explained above, a worker who receives 5 rems (0.05 Sv) in a year incurs 10 times as much risk as another worker who receives only 0.5 rem (0.005 Sv). Only a very few workers receive doses near 5 rems (0.05 Sv) per year. 


According to the Committee on the Biological Effects of Ionizing Radiations (BEIR) V report, approximately one in five adults normally will die from cancer from all possible causes such as smoking, food, alcohol, drugs, air pollutants, natural background radiation, and inherited traits. Thus, in any group of 10,000 workers, we can estimate that about 2,000 (20%) will die from cancer without any occupational radiation exposure. 


To explain the significance of these estimates, we will use as an example a group of 10,000 people, each exposed to 1 rem (0. 0 1 Sv) of ionizing radiation. Using the risk factor of 4 effects per 10,000 rem of dose, we estimate that 4 of the 10,000 people might die from delayed cancer because of that 1-rem dose (although the actual number could be more or less than 4) in addition to the 2,000 normal cancer fatalities expected to occur in that group from all other causes. This means that a 1-rem (0.01 Sv) dose may increase an individual worker's chances of dying from cancer from 20 percent to 20.04 percent. If one's lifetime occupational dose is 10 rems, we could raise the estimate to 20.4 percent. A lifetime dose of 100 rems may increase chances of dying from cancer from 20 to 24 percent. The average measurable dose for radiation workers reported to the NRC was 0.31 rem (0.0031 Sv) for 1993. Today, very few workers ever accumulate 100 rems (1 Sv) in a working lifetime, and the average career dose of workers at NRC-licensed facilities is 1.5 rems (0.015 Sv), which represents an estimated increase from 20 to about 20.06 percent in the risk of dying from cancer. 


It is important to understand the probability factors here. A similar question would be, "If you select one card from a full deck of cards, will you get the ace of spades?" This question cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. The best answer is that your chance is 1 in 52. However, if 1000 people each select one card from full decks, we can predict that about 20 of them will get an ace of spades. Each person will have 1 chance in 52 of drawing the ace of spades, but there is no way we can predict which persons will get that card. The issue is further complicated by the fact that in a drawing by 1000 people, we might get only 15 successes. and in another, perhaps 25 correct cards in 1000 draws. We can say that if you receive a radiation dose, you will have increased your chances of eventually developing cancer. It is assumed that the more radiation exposure you get, the more you increase your chances of cancer. 


The normal chance of dying from cancer is about one in five for persons who have not received any occupational radiation dose. The additional chance of developing fatal cancer from an occupational exposure of 1 rem (0. 0 1 Sv) is about the same as the chance of drawing any ace from a full deck of cards three times in a row. The additional chance of dying from cancer from an occupational exposure of 10 rem (0.1 Sv) is about equal to your chance of drawing two aces successively on the first two draws from a full deck of cards. 


It is important to realize that these risk numbers are only estimates based on data for people and research animals exposed to high levels of radiation in short periods of time. There is still uncertainty with regard to estimates of radiation risk from low levels of exposure. Many difficulties are involved in designing research studies that can accurately measure the projected small increases in cancer cases that might be caused by low exposures to radiation as compared to the normal rate of cancer. 


These estimates are considered to be the best available for the worker to use to make an informed decision concerning acceptance of the risks associated with exposure to radiation. A worker who decides to accept this risk should try to keep exposure to radiation as low as is reasonably achievable (ALARA) to avoid unnecessary risk. 



Probably not. Based on the risk estimates previously discussed, the risk of cancer from doses below the occupational limits is believed to be small. Assessment of the cancer risks that may be associated with low doses of radiation are projected from data available at doses larger than 10 rems (0.1 Sv). For radiation protection purposes, these estimates are made using the straight line portion of the linear quadratic model. We have data on cancer probabilities only for high doses. Only in studies involving radiation doses above occupational limits are there dependable determinations of the risk of cancer, primarily because below the limits the effect is small compared to differences in the normal cancer incidence from year to year and place to place. The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP), National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP), and other standards-setting organizations assume for radiation protection purposes that there is some risk, no matter how small the dose. Some scientists believe that the risk drops off to zero at some low dose, the threshold effect. The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) and National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) endorse the linear quadratic model as a conservative means of assuring safety. 


For regulatory purposes, a linear relationship is used. Because the scientific evidence does not conclusively demonstrate whether there is or is not an effect at low doses, it is assumed for radiation protection purposes, that even small doses have some chance of causing cancer. Thus. a principle of radiation protection is to do more than merely meet the allowed regulatory limits; doses should be kept as low as is reasonably achievable (ALARA). This is as true for natural carcinogens such as sunlight and natural radiation as it is for those that are manmade, such as cigarette smoke, smog, and x-rays.  



Oe way to make these comparisons is to compare the average number of days of life expectancy lost because of the effects associated with each particular health risk. Estimates are calculated by looking at a large number of persons, recording the age when death occurs from specific causes, and estimating the average number of days of life lost as a result of these early deaths. The total number of days of life lost is then averaged over the total observed group. 


Several studies have compared the average days of life lost from exposure to radiation with the number of days lost as a result of being exposed to other health risks. The word "average" is important because an individual who gets cancer loses about 15 years of life expectancy, while his or her coworkers do not suffer any loss. 


Some representative numbers are presented in Table 1. For categories of NRC-regulated industries with larger doses, the average measurable occupational dose in 1993 was 0.31 rem (0.0031 Sv). A simple calculation based on the article by Cohen and Lee shows that 0.3 rem (0.003 Sv) per year from age 18 to 65 results in an average loss of 15 days. These estimates indicate that the health risks from occupational radiation exposure are smaller than the risks associated with many other events or activities we encounter and accept in normal day-to-day activities. 

Table 1

Estimated loss of life expectancy from health risks

Health Risks Estimate of Life Expectancy Lost
(average) (see note)
Smoking 20 cigarettes a day 6 years
Overweight by 15% 2 years
Alcohol consumption (US average) 1 year
All accidents combined 1 year
All natural hazards (earthquake, flood, etc.) 7 days
Medical Radiation 6 days
Occupational exposure 0.3 rem/yr from age 18 to 65 15 days
Occupational exposure 1.0 rem/yr from age 18 to 65 51 days


NOTE: Table adapted from B.L. Cohen and I.S. Lee, "Catalog of Risks Extended and Updated," Health Physics, Vol. 61, September 1991. 


It is also useful to compare the estimated average number of days of life lost from occupational exposure to radiation with the number of days lost as a result of working in several types of industries. Table 2 shows average days of life expectancy lost as a result of fatal work-related accidents. Table 2 does not include non-accident types of occupational risks such as occupational disease and stress because the data are not available. 


Table 2

Estimated loss of life expectancy from industrial accidents


Health Risks Estimated Days of Life Expectancy Lost
(see note)
All industries 60
Agriculture 320
Construction 227
Mining and quarrying 167
Transportation and public utilities 160
Government 60
Manufacturing 40
Trade 27
Services 27



NOTE: Table adapted from B.L. Cohen and I.S. Lee, "Catalog of Risks Extended and Updated," Health Physics, Vol. 61, September 1991.


These comparisons are not ideal because we are comparing the possible effects of chronic exposure to radiation to different kinds of risk such as accidental death, in which death is inevitable if the event occurs. This is the best we can do because good data are not available on chronic exposure to other workplace carcinogens. Also, the estimates of loss of life expectancy for workers from radiation-induced cancer do not take into consideration the competing effect on the life expectancy of the workers from industrial accidents.



During certain stages of development, the embryo/fetus is believed to be more sensitive to radiation damage than adults. Studies of atomic bomb survivors exposed to acute radiation doses exceeding 20 rads (0.2 Gy) during pregnancy show that children born after receiving these doses have a higher risk of mental retardation. Other studies suggest that an association exists between exposure to diagnostic x-rays before birth and carcinogenic effects in childhood and in adult life. Scientists are uncertain about the magnitude of the risk. Some studies show the embryo/fetus to be more sensitive to radiation-induced cancer than adults, but other studies do not. In recognition of the possibility of increased radiation sensitivity, and because dose to the embryo/fetus is involuntary on the part of the embryo/ fetus, a more restrictive dose limit has been established for the embryo/fetus of a declared pregnant radiation worker. See RH 4.13 of the "Colorado Rules and Regulations Pertaining to Radiation Control", Dose to the Embryo/Fetus. 


If an occupationally exposed woman declares her pregnancy in writing, she is subject to the more restrictive dose limits for the embryo/fetus during the remaining of the pregnancy. The dose limit of 500 mrems (5 mSv) for the total gestation period applies to the embryo/fetus and is controlled by restricting the exposure to the declared pregnant woman. Restricting the woman's occupational exposure, if she declares her pregnancy, raises questions about individual privacy rights, equal employment opportunities, and the possible loss of income. Because of these concerns, the declaration of pregnancy by a female radiation worker is voluntary. Also, the declaration of pregnancy can be withdrawn for any reason, for example, if the woman believes that her benefits from receiving the occupational exposure would outweigh the risk to her embryo/fetus from the radiation exposure. 



No. Temporary or permanent sterility cannot be caused by radiation at the levels allowed under occupational limits. There is a threshold below which these effects do not occur. Acute doses on the order of 10 rems (0.1 Sv) to the testes can result in a measurable but temporary reduction in sperm count. Temporary sterility (suppression of ovulation) has been obtained in women who have received acute doses of 150 rads (1.5 Gy). The estimated threshold (acute) radiation dose for induction of permanent sterility is about 200 rads (2 Gy) for men and about 350 rads (3.5 Gy). For women these doses are greater than the lifetime occupational dose limits for workers. 


Although acute doses can affect fertility by reducing sperm count or suppressing ovulation, they do not have any direct effect on one's ability to function sexually. No evidence exists to suggest that exposures within occupational limits have any effect on the ability to function sexually. 



For adults, an annual limit that does not exceed:

  • 5 rems (0.05 Sv) for the total effective dose equivalent (TEDE), which is the sum of the deep dose equivalent (DDE) from external exposure to the whole body and the committed effective dose equivalent (CEDE) from intakes of radioactive material.
  • 50 rems (0.5 Sv) for the total organ dose equivalent (TODE), which is the sum of the DDE from external exposure to the whole body and the committed dose equivalent (CDE) from intakes of radioactive material to any individual organ or tissue. other than the lens of the eye.
  • 15 rems (0.15 Sv) for the lens dose equivalent (LDE), which is the external dose to the lens of the eye.
  • 50 rems (0.5 Sv) for the shallow dose equivalent (SDE), which is the external dose to the skin or to any extremity.

For minor workers

The annual occupational dose limits are 10 percent of the dose limits for adult workers.


For the embryo/fetus

For protection of the embryo/fetus of a declared pregnant woman, the dose limit is 0.5 rem (5 mSv) during the entire pregnancy.


The occupational dose limit for adult workers of 5 rems (0.05 Sv) total effective dose equivalent (TEDE) is based on consideration of the potential for delayed biological effects. The 5 rem (0.05 Sv) limit, together with application of the concept of keeping occupational doses as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA), provides a level of risk of delayed effects considered acceptable by the NRC. The limits for individual organs are below the dose levels at which early biological effects are observed in the individual organs.


The dose limit for the embryo/fetus of a declared pregnant woman is based on a consideration of the possibility of greater sensitivity to radiation of the embryo/fetus and the involuntary nature of the exposure.


ALARA means "as low as is reasonably achievable." In addition to providing an upper limit on an individual's permissible radiation dose, the department requires that its licensees establish radiation protection programs and use procedures and, engineering controls to achieve occupational doses, and doses to the public, as far below the limits as is reasonably achievable. "Reasonably achievable" also means "to the extent practicable." What is practicable depends on the purpose of the job, the state of technology, the costs for averting doses, and the benefits. Although implementation of the ALARA principle is a required integral part of each licensee's radiation protection program, it does not mean that each radiation exposure must be kept to an absolute minimum, but rather that "reasonable" efforts must be made to avert dose. In practice, ALARA includes planning tasks involving radiation exposure so as to reduce dose to individual workers and the work group. 


There are several ways to control radiation doses, e.g., limiting the time in radiation areas, maintaining distance from sources of radiation, and providing shielding of radiation sources to reduce dose. The use of engineering controls, from the design of facilities and equipment to the actual set-up and conduct of work activities, is also an important element of the ALARA concept. 


An ALARA analysis should be used in determining whether the use of respiratory protection is advisable. In evaluating whether or not to use respirators, the goal should be to achieve the optimal sum of external and internal doses. For example, the use of respirators can lead to increased work time within radiation areas, which increases external dose. The advantage of using respirators to reduce internal exposure must be evaluated against the increased external exposure and related stresses caused by the use of respirators. Heat stress, reduced visibility, and reduced communication associated with the use of respirators could expose a worker to far greater risks than are associated with the internal dose avoided by use of the respirator. To the extent practical, engineering controls, such as containment and ventilation systems, should be used to reduce workplace airborne radioactive materials. 



The average person is constantly exposed to ionizing radiation from several sources. Our environment and even the human body contain naturally occurring radioactive materials (e.g., potassium-40) that contribute to the radiation dose that we receive. The largest source of natural background radiation exposure is terrestrial radon, a colorless, odorless, chemically inert gas, which causes about 55 percent of our average, non-occupational exposure. Cosmic radiation originating in space contributes additional exposure. The use of x-rays and radioactive materials in medicine and dentistry adds to our population exposure. As shown below in Table 3, the average person receives an annual radiation dose of about 0.36 rem (3.6 mSv). By age 20, the average person will accumulate over 7 rems (70 mSv) of dose. By age 50, the total dose is up to 18 rems (180 mSv). After 70 years of exposure this dose is up to 25 rems (250 mSv). 


Average annual effective dose equivalent to individuals in the U.S. (see Note 1)

Source Effective Dose Equivalent (mrems)
other than radon

Nuclear fuel cycle 0.05
Consumer Products
(see Note 2)
diagnostic x-rays
nuclear medicine

Grand total about 360

Note 1: Adapted from Table 8.1, NRCP 93
Note 2: Includes building material, television receivers, luminous watches,
smoke detectors, etc. (from Table 5.1, NCRP 93)

 For 1993, the NRC received reports on about a quarter of a million people who were monitored for occupational exposure to radiation. Almost half of those monitored had no measurable doses. The other half had an average dose of about 310 mrem (3.1 mSv) for the year. Of these, 93 percent received an annual dose of less than 1 rem (10 mSv); 98.7 percent received less than 2 rems (20 mSv); and the highest reported dose was for two individuals who each received between 5 and 6 rems (50 and 60 mSv). 



If you are likely to receive more than 10 percent of the annual dose limits, the Colorado requires your employer, the licensee, to monitor your dose, to maintain records of your dose, and, at least on an annual basis to inform you of your dose. See RH 4.46 and RH 10.4 in the Colorado Rules and Regulations Pertaining to Radiation Control. 


External exposures are monitored by using individual monitoring devices. These devices are required to be used if it appears likely that external exposure will exceed 10 percent of the allowed annual dose, i.e., 0.5 rem (5 mSv). The most commonly used monitoring devices are film badges, thermoluminescence dosimeters (TLDs), electronic dosimeters, and direct reading pocket dosimeters. 


With respect to internal exposure, your employer is required to monitor your occupational intake of radioactive material and assess the resulting dose if it appears likely that you will receive greater than 10 percent of the annual limit on intake (ALI) from intakes in 1 year. Internal exposure can be estimated by measuring the radiation emitted from the body (for example, with a "whole body counter") or by measuring the radioactive materials contained in biological samples such as urine or feces. Dose estimates can also be made if one knows how much radioactive material was in the air and the length of time during which the air was breathed .




If a worker receives a dose in excess of any of the annual dose limits, the regulations prohibit any occupational exposure during the remainder of the year in which the limit is exceeded. The licensee is also required to file an overexposure report with the Department and provide a copy to the individual who received the dose. 


Radiation protection limits do not define safe or unsafe levels of radiation exposure. Exceeding a limit does not mean that you will get cancer. For radiation protection purposes, it is assumed that risks are related to the size of the radiation dose. Therefore, when your dose is higher your risk is also considered to be higher. These limits are similar to highway speed limits. If you drive at 70 mph, your risk is higher than at 55 mph, even though you may not actually have an accident. Those who set speed limits have determined that the risks of driving in excess of the speed limit are not acceptable. In the same way, Part 4 of the Regulations establishes a limit for normal occupational exposure of 5 rems (0.05 Sv) a year. Although you will not necessarily get cancer or some other radiation effect at doses above the limit, it does mean that the licensee's safety program has failed in some way. Investigation is warranted to determine the cause and correct the conditions leading to the dose in excess of the limit. 



A "planned special exposure" (PSE) is an infrequent exposure to radiation, separate from and in addition to the radiation received under the annual occupational limits. The licensee can authorize additional dose in any one year that is equal to the annual occupational dose limit as long as the individual's total dose from planned special exposures does not exceed five times the annual dose limit during the individual's lifetime. For example, licensees may authorize planned special exposures for an adult radiation worker to receive doses up to an additional 5 rems (0.05 Sv) in a year above the 5 rem (0.05 Sv) annual total effective dose equivalent (TEDE) occupational dose limit. Each worker is limited to no more than 25 rems (0.25 Sv) from planned special exposures in his or her lifetime. Such exposures are only allowed in exceptional situations when alternatives for avoiding the additional exposure are not available or are impractical. 


Before the licensee authorizes a planned special exposure, the licensee must ensure that the worker is informed of the purpose and circumstances of the planned operation, the estimated doses expected, and the procedures to keep the doses as low as reasonably achievable while considering other risks that may be present. 



There are two reasons. First, the Regulations state that licensees must take steps to keep exposures to radiation ALARA. Specific approval from the licensee for workers to receive doses in excess of administrative limits usually results in more critical risk-benefit analyses as each additional increment of dose is approved for a worker. Secondly, an administrative control level that is set lower than the limit provides a safety margin designed to help the licensee avoid doses to workers in excess of the limit.  





The rules exempt medical exposure, but equal doses of medical and occupational radiation have equal risks. Medical exposure to radiation is justified for reasons that are quite different from the reasons for occupational exposure. A physician prescribing an x-ray, for example, makes a medical judgment that the benefit to the patient from the resulting medical information justifies the risk associated with the radiation. This judgment may or may not be accepted by the patient. Similarly, each worker must decide on the benefits and acceptability of occupational radiation risk, just as each worker must decide on the acceptability of any other occupational hazard. 


Consider a worker who receives a dose of 3 rems (0.03 Sv) from a series of x-rays in connection with an injury or illness. This dose and any associated risk must be justified on medical grounds. If the worker had also received 2 rems (0.02 Sv) on the job, the combined dose of 5 rems (0.05 Sv) would in no way incapacitate the worker. Restricting the worker from additional job exposure during the remainder of the year would not have any effect on the risk from the 3 rems (0.03 Sv) already received from the medical exposure. If the individual worker accepts the risks associated with the x-rays on the basis of the medical benefits and accepts the risks associated with job-related exposure on the basis of employment benefits, it would be unreasonable to restrict the worker from employment involving exposure to radiation for the remainder of the year. 



Emergencies are "unplanned" events in which actions to save lives or property may warrant additional doses for which no particular limit applies. 


Rare situations may occur in which a dose in excess of occupational limits would be unavoidable in order to carry out a lifesaving operation or to avoid a large dose to large populations. However, persons called upon to undertake any emergency operation should do so only on a voluntary basis and with full awareness of the risks involved. 


For perspective, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) has published emergency dose guidelines. These guidelines state that doses to all workers during emergencies should, to the extent practicable, be limited to 5 rems (0.05 Sv). The EPA further states that there are some emergency situations for which higher limits may be justified. The dose resulting from such emergency exposures should be limited to 10 rems (0.1 Sv) for protecting valuable property, and to 25 rems (0.25 Sv) for lifesaving activities and the protection of large populations. In the context of this guidance, the dose to workers that is incurred for the protection of large populations might be considered justified for situations in which the collective dose to others that is avoided as a result of the emergency operation is significantly larger than that incurred by the workers involved. 



The radiation dose limits in Part 4 of the Regulations were established based on the recommendations of the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) and National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) as endorsed in Federal radiation protection guidance developed by the EPA. The limits were recommended, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) and National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) with the objective of ensuring that working in a radiation-related industry was as safe as working in other comparable industries. The dose limits and the principle of as low as reasonably achievable (ALARA) should ensure that risks to workers are maintained indistinguishable from risks from background radiation.



Colorado's dose limits are compatible with those of the NRC. Since publication of the proposed dose limit by the NRC in 1986, the International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) in 1990 revised its recommendations for radiation protection based on newer studies of radiation risks , and the National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) followed with a revision to its recommendations in 1993. The International Commission on Radiological Protection (ICRP) recommended a limit of 10 rems (0.1 Sv) effective dose equivalent (from internal and external sources) over a 5 year period with no more than 5 rems (0.05 Sv) in 1 year. The National Council on Radiation Protection and Measurements (NCRP) recommended a cumulative limit in rems, not to exceed the individual's age in years, with no more than 5 rems (0.05 Sv) in any year. 


The NRC does not believe that additional reductions in the dose limits are required at this time. Because of the practice of maintaining radiation exposures as low as is reasonably achievable (ALARA), the average radiation dose to occupationally exposed persons is well below the limits in the current regulations. 



If the risks from exposure to occupational radiation are unacceptable to a worker, he or she can request a transfer to a job that does not involve exposure to radiation. However, the risks associated with the exposure to radiation that workers, on the average, actually receive are comparable to risks in other industries and are considered acceptable by the scientific groups that have studied them. An employer is not obligated to guarantee a transfer if a worker decides not to accept an assignment that requires exposure to radiation.


Any worker has the option of seeking other employment in a non-radiation occupation. However, the studies that have compared occupational risks in the nuclear industry to those in other job areas indicate that nuclear work is relatively safe. (See question 11.) Thus, a worker may find different kinds of risk but will not necessarily find significantly lower risks in another job. 




The following list suggests sources of useful information on radiation risk:


  • Radiation Management Program, Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment, 4300 Cherry Creek Drive South, Denver, CO 80246-1530.
  • The employer, the radiation protection or health physics office where a worker is employed.
  • U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission Headquarters Radiation Protection & Health Effects Branch Office of Nuclear Regulatory Research Washington, DC 20555 Telephone:(301) 415-6187
  • Department of Health and Human Services Center for Devices and Radiological Health 1390 Piccard Drive, MS HFZ-1 Rockville, MD 20850 Telephone:(301) 443-4690
  • U.S. Environmental Protection Agency Office of Radiation and Indoor Air Criteria and Standards Division 401 M Street NW. Washington, DC 20460 Telephone: (202) 233-9290.