Biological Agents

Biological agents are found in many sectors of employment. They are rarely visible and so workers are not always able to appreciate the risks they pose. They include bacteria, viruses, fungi (yeasts and moulds) and parasites.

Advice for OHS Reps

Who might be affected in your workplace?

Are there any biological agents in your workplace? (see the information below) If you or your members have identified an activity where workers may be exposed to biological agents, the first step is to collect as much information as possible about the exposures. Consider not only workers who may be directly exposed, but also other people who might be affected, such as cleaners, customers, etc. Talk to people and discuss with them how they actually do their work.

Remember too your rights as an elected OHS Rep, including:

  • the right to information on any actual or potential hazards in the workplace
  • the right to carry out inspections
  • the right to seek the assistance of any person
  • the right to be consulted

Evaluate the risks and identify how to reduce the risk to workers

Check out any existing measures - do you think they give adequate protection to workers? What more could and should the employer do to reduce risks? Is it possible to get rid of the risk altogether by using a different agent or process.

When a work activity involves the deliberate, intentional use of biological agents, such as cultivating a microoganism in a microbiological lab or using it in food production, the biological agent will be known, can be monitored more easily and measures taken to prevent exposure.

When the occurrence of the biological agents is an unintentional consequence of the work - for example in waste sorting or in agricultural activities - the assessment of risks that workers are exposed to will be more difficult. In any case, for some of the activities involved, information on exposures and protection measures is available. (see the table below).

If the exposure is not avoidable, it should be kept to a minimum by limiting the number of workers who are exposed, and reducing their exposure time. The control measures introduced in a workplace must be tailored to the working processes. The employer also has the responsibility to provide the workers with information and training to enable them to recognise the hazards and to follow safe working procedures.

The measures which need to be taken to eliminate or reduce the risks to workers will depend on the particular biohazard, but there are a number of common actions that can be implemented:

  • Many biological agents are communicated via air, such as exhaled bacteria or toxins of mouldy grains. The production of aerosols and dusts should be avoided in the manufacturing process, during cleaning and/or maintenance.

  • Good housekeeping, hygienic working procedures and use of relevant warning signs are key elements of safe and healthy working conditions.

  • Many microorganisms have developed mechanisms to survive or resist heat, dehydration or radiation, for example by producing spores. The workplace must develop decontamination measures for waste, equipment and clothing, and appropriate hygienic measures for workers, as well as proper instructions for safe disposal of waste, emergency procedures, and first aid.

In some cases preventative measures may include vaccinations to workers most at risk.

Contact your union if you have any queries, or if you are concerned about the levels of risks due to biohazards in your workplace.

Table of risks and suggested measures

Occupations
at Risk

Hazards/Risks

Preventative Measures

Food (cheese, yoghurt, salami) or food additive production, bakeries Moulds/yeasts, bacteria and mites cause allergies.
Organic dusts of grain, milk powder or flour contaminated with biological agents.
Toxins such as botulinustoxins or aflatoxins
Closed processes
Avoid aerosol formation
Separate contaminated work areas
Appropriate hygiene measures
Health Care Several viral and bacterial infections such as HIV, hepatitis, or tuberculosis.
Needlestick injuries
Safe handling of infectious specimens, sharps waste, contaminated linen and other material.
Safe handling and cleaning of blood spills and other body fluids.
Adequate protective equipment, gloves, clothing, glasses.
Appropriate hygienic measures
Laboratories Infections and allergies when handling microorganisms and cell cultures, eg of human tissues.
Accidental spills and needlestick injuries.
Microbiological safety cabinets
Dust and aerosol-reducing measures.
Safe handling and transport of samples.
Appropriate personal protection and hygiene measures.
Decontamination and emergency measures for spills.
Restricted access.
Biosafety labels.
Agriculture
Forestry
Horticulture
Animal food and fodder production
Bacteria, fungi, mites and viruses transmitted from animals, parasites and ticks.
Respiratory problems due to microorganisms and mites in organic dusts of grain, mild powder, flour, spices.
Specific allergic diseases like farmer's lung and bird breeder's lung.
Dust and aerosol-reducing measures.
Avoid contact with contaminated animal or equipment.
Protection against animal bites and stings.
Preservatives for fodder.
Cleaning and maintenance
Metal processing industry
Wood processing industry
Skin problems due to bacteria and bronchial asthma due to moulds/yeasts in circulating fluids in industrial processes such as grinding, pulp factories' and metal and stone cutting fluids. Local exhaust ventilation
Regular maintenance, filtering and decontamination of fluids and machinery.
Skin protection
Appropriate hygiene measures
Working areas with air conditioning systems and high humidity (eg textile industry, print industry and paper production) Allergies and respiratory disorders due to moulds/yeasts.
Legionnaires disease
Dust- and aerosol-reducing measures.
Regular maintenance of ventilation, machinery and work areas.
Restrict number of workers.
Maintaining high hot (tap) water temperatures.
Archives, museums, libraries Moulds/yeasts and bacteria cause allergies and respiratory disorders Dust- and aerosol-reduction.
Decontamination
Adequate personal protective equipment
Building and construction industry, processing of natural materials like clay, straw, reed; redevelopment of buildings Moulds and bacteria due to deterioration of building materials Dust- and aerosol-reducing measures
Appropriate personal protection and hygiene measures

Legal Standards

There are currently no occupational exposure limits for biological contaminants. The essential difference between biological agents and other hazardous substances is their ability to reproduce. A small amount of a microorganism may grow considerably in a very short time under favourable conditions. 

However, employers have a duty under the Victorian Occupational Health and Safety Act (2004) to provide and maintain for employees, as far as practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risks to health. This includes providing a safe system of work, information, training, supervision, and where appropriate personal protective equipment. The employer must identify hazards in the workplace and, if practicable, eliminate these hazards. If this is not practicable, then the employer must take measures to control the hazard and reduce the risk to workers.

Further, under the Health (Infectious Diseases) Regulations 2001 there is a requirement for medical practitioners and others to notify the government health authorities of a large number of infectious diseases, including diseases such as Anthrax, Q fever, Listeriosis, Leptospirosis and others occurring in an occupational environment. This is due to the high risks to public health in general. The purpose is to ensure that the department takes immediate steps to identify the sources of infection and implement necessary action.

Where exposure to biological agents can occur
Whenever people are in contact with:
  • Natural or organic materials such as soil, clay, plant materials (hay, straw, cotton, etc),
  • Substances of animal origin (wool, hair, etc),
  • Food,
  • Organic dust (eg flour, paper dust, from animals),
  • Waste, waste water,
  • Blood and other body fluids,
they may be exposed to biological agents. Biological agents can cause three types of disease:
  1. infections caused by parasites, viruses or bacteria;
  2. allergies initiated by exposure to mould, organic dust like flour dust and animal dander, enzymes and mites; and
  3. poisoning or toxic effects.
Some biohazards have the potential to cause cancer or foetal harm.

Microorganisms can enter the human body via damaged skin or mucous membranes. They can be inhaled or swallowed, leading to infections of the upper respiratory tract or the digestive system. Exposure also occurs accidentally by animal bites or needlestick injuries.

In November 2007, the European Risk Observatory part of the  European Agency for Safety and Health at Work released a report on emerging biological risks that are most likely to affect EU workers. According to the ERO, several thousand fatalities in the EU are due to work-related infectious diseases and many biological risks remain poorly assessed at workplace level.

A report (March 2011) Exposure to biological hazards and the provision of controls against biological hazards in Australian workplaces  was issued by Safe Work Australia based on data from the 2008 National Hazard Exposure Worker Surveillance [NHEWS] survey.  The findings include:

  • Almost one in five workers surveyed reported they worked in places where there were biological materials. These workers were considered exposed to biological hazards. Of the exposed workers, 75 per cent were in contact with human bodily matter and 30 per cent were in contact with live animals or animal products

  • Almost two thirds of workers who reported exposure to biological hazards were women

  • Exposure to biological hazards was concentrated in the Health and community services and Agriculture, forestry and fishing industries, and

  • Biological hazard control provision was high for workers exposed to human bodily matter, laboratory cultures and biohazard waste, sewerage and rubbish but relatively low for workers in contact with animals and animal products.

See Also:

This information is based on Fact Sheet 41, from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work.

last updated January 2015

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