Hepatitis B is usually transmitted by contact with infected human blood. For information on hepatitis in general, see Hepatitis A on this website.
Identify the hazard and assess the risks
All work areas and tasks should be assessed.
- Find out whether hepatitis B is a risk in your occupation. For more information on Hepatitis B, see below. Contact your union for further advice if necessary.
- Determine how many and which workers could be exposed.
- Carry out inspections, observe, evaluate current existing precautions.
- Talk to members of your work group - ask co-workers whether they are experiencing any health problems about which they are concerned. If any of your members have symptoms of hepatitis B, this must be reported to your employer and their doctor immediately.
- Investigate any past illnesses or complaints, analyse first aid, injury and illness and workers compensation records kept by your employer.
- Workers who are at increased risk of hepatitis B should be offered immunisation. Immunisation is the most effective way to protect against hepatitis B infection. For maximum protection workers must receive three doses of the vaccine. The second dose is given one month after the first dose, the third dose is given five months after that. The course of three doses gives protection to approximately 95 per cent of people. After the three doses, a blood test is done to check for protection. The test, and a booster dose every five years, is recommended for all workers at high risk.
Some people suffer side effects soon after immunisation, including fever, soreness where the injection was given, nausea, and joint pain. However, reactions to the vaccine are uncommon.
Negotiate an immunisation program with your employer. This may be done through the OHS Committee, if there is one. Your employer should cover the cost of the immunisation program. (Remember the hepatitis B vaccine only protects against hepatitis B - it does not protect people from other hepatitis viruses.)
- Ensure that all potentially exposed workers are provided with adequate information and training on the causes and symptoms of the disease, work practices and procedures and the use and maintenance of any protective clothing and equipment.
- Ensure that workers are provided with adequate protective clothing and equipment, and that it is maintained so that it remains effective.
- Wearing of protective clothing and equipment such as protective gloves and aprons, eye and mouth protection where there is a risk of splashing;
- Immediately clearing up and disinfecting after spillages;
- Safe disposal or thorough disinfection of equipment, clothing and linen contaminated with body fluids;
- Cuts, grazes and breaks in the skin should be covered with waterproof dressings.
- Where blood and other samples suspected t be contaminated with Hepatitis B are handled in laboratories, strict guidelines must be observed. Operating theatre staff should also follow strict procedures. Proper procedures must be adopted for the safe disposal of infected wastes and all sharps.
- For workers in the sex industry: Adopt safe sex practices by always using condoms. Hands must be washed after handling used condoms, or after contact with the anal area.
What to do if someone is diagnosed with Hepatitis B
Make sure that the worker informs your employer and goes to their own doctor. If the worker contracted the disease through contact at work, ensure that a workers compensation claim is made (for advice on Workers' Compensation, go to the ToolKit on this site, or contact your union).
It is recommended that anyone living in a house with someone with hepatitis B should be immunised. If workers believe they have been exposed recently, they should see a doctor immediately. Their doctor can give them treatment which greatly reduces the risk of them becoming infected with hepatitis B.
There are no specific OHS regulations on hepatitis.
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 also has the duty to monitor conditions at the workplace and to monitor the health and safety of employees.
Hepatitis B is a notifiable disease under the Health (Infectious Diseases) Regulations 2001 - medical practitioners and others must notify the health authorities.
What are the health effects of Hepatitis B?
Not all people who are infected with hepatitis B get very ill. Some do not get sick at all. Children are more likely than adults to show no symptoms even if they are infected.
In more severe cases, hepatitis B can cause:
- Loss of appetite
- Nausea and vomiting
- Pain in the liver (under the right rib cage)
- Pain in the joints
- Jaundice (when the urine becomes darker than normal and the eyes and skin go yellow).
Normally these symptoms disappear in a few weeks, but even when the person feels much better he or she may still be infected with hepatitis B.
People infected with hepatitis B can recover completely and not get the disease again. But hepatitis B can make people very ill, and can lead to death.
Carriers of the Hepatitis B virus
Some people become 'carriers' of the hepatitis B virus - the virus stays in their bodies for their whole lives. Carriers may eventually suffer illnesses such as liver cancer and chronic liver disease, but often they show no symptoms. Even while they seem in good health carriers can infect other people.
Babies and children who are infected are more likely than adults to become carriers. In some population groups a lot of people are infected when they are children and as many as one in five people are carriers. These population groups include Aboriginals and Torres Strait Islanders, South East Asians and Pacific Islanders.
The hepatitis B virus is present in the blood of an infected person. The disease is transmitted mainly by contact with infected human blood (but occasionally also by other routes). In occupational settings, the disease can be spread by:
- Piercing the skin with equipment which has not been properly cleaned and sterilised (eg 'needlestick injuries');
- The virus entering the body through minor cuts and abrasions if contact is made with infected blood, blood products, or sometimes other body fluids;
- Contact with urine or faeces which contain blood;
- Unprotected sexual intercourse;
Workers who are most at risk, therefore, include:
- Health staff working in/as -
- Institutions, eg for the intellectually disabled
- Renal units
- Drug rehabilitation units
- Clinics for sexually transmitted diseases
- Midwives & theatre nurses
- Emergency service workers - Ambulance, fire brigade and police
- Cleaners (especially those cleaning public facilities, hotels, etc
- Commercial laundries
- Municipal workers
- First Aiders
- Sex industry workers
For Further Information:
- The Victorian Government has produced a number of guidance documents on hepatitis. These are all available on the Infectious Diseases Epidemiology & Surveillance website
- A particularly useful guide is the Blue Book - Guidelines for the control of infectious diseases.
- The National Code of Practice for the Control of Work-related Exposure to Hepatitis and HIV (blood-borne) Viruses [NOHSC: 2010 (2003) 2nd Edition], was declared in December 2003, and is available to download from the Safe Work Australia. The code provides practical guidance for the management of exposure to HBV, HCV and HIV in the workplace. The code is designed to be applicable to all workplaces.
- Hepatitis A
- Hepatitis C
Last amended September 2014