Biological agents are living organisms or products of living organisms. They include viruses, bacteria and fungi and their metabolites, as well as parasitic worms and plants. They can enter the body by inhalation, by ingestion or by absorption through the skin, eyes, mucous membranes or wounds (bites from animals, needle stick injuries, etc.). If the living conditions are favourable viruses, bacteria and fungi can reproduce very rapidly in a very short time. In addition, some of them can be passed from one person to another.
Biological agents are everywhere, and while they may be very beneficial for life they may also be dangerous. Biological agents are relevant to many trades and occupations, and a sizeable portion of the working population faces the risk of exposure. Despite this, workers and employers tend to know little about the risk of exposure to biological agents.
Pathogenic micro-organisms may be hazardous at extremely low concentrations, and of course biological agents are not visible to the naked eye. Even if no biological agent is detected, it is possible for micro-organisms to provoke a toxic or allergic effect via their metabolites (mycotoxins or their component endotoxins). Unlike other dangerous substances, biological agents are able to reproduce. Under favourable conditions, a small number of micro-organisms may multiply in a very short time to create a considerable problem.
Most of the time, basic personal hygiene measures and wearing personal protective equipment (PPE) provides sufficient protection against biological agents. Risk assessment will concentrate on identifying the hazards, assessing the risks and then controlling those risks.
Biological risks have been around ever since living organisms appeared on earth, and they are to be found everywhere. Potentially exposed to biological agents as a result of their work and does not distinguish between intentional and unintentional exposures.
Infection at the workplace can occur via different sources such as:
- Blood and other body fluids;
- Human bodies, animal carcasses and raw meat;
- Human or animal waste products such as faeces and urine;
- Respiratory discharges such as coughs and sneezes;
- Skin contact.
Allergic and toxic reactions can occur via:
- Moulds or mould spores;
- Dust mites, feathers, animal hairs, pollen.