Healthcare workers may be exposed to a wide range of biological agents, for example, influenza, COVID-19, Tuberculosis, Hepatitis and HIV infections.
Exposure to biological agents can cause infection, allergy or toxicity.
Agents are classified into 4 risk groups according to their level of risk of infection.
- group 1 biological agent means one that is unlikely to cause human disease to employees
- group 2 biological agent means one that can cause human disease and might be a hazard to employees, although it is unlikely to spread to the community and in respect of which, there is usually effective prophylaxis or treatment available
- group 3 biological agent means one that can cause severe human disease and presents a serious hazard to employees and which may present a risk of spreading to the community, although there is usually effective prophylaxis or treatment available
- group 4 biological agent means one that causes severe human disease and is a serious hazard to employees and which may present a high risk of spreading to the community and in respect of which there is usually no effective prophylaxis or treatment available
As a manager, it is your responsibility to:
- have an understanding of what makes up a biological agent
- do a risk assessment identifying hazards and risks of exposure to biological agents
- ensure appropriate measures are in place to eliminate or minimise risks
Where there is a risk to the health or safety of employees, you must ensure:
- employees do not eat or drink where there is a risk of contamination
- employees have appropriate washing facilities including eye washes and skin antiseptic
- procedures are in place for taking and processing samples
- employees are given special protective clothing and equipment (where necessary)
- appropriate responses are in place for emergencies such as spills and contaminated employees
- training needs assessment is carried out to identify training requirements
As an employee, it is your responsibility to:
- understand what makes up a biological agent
- work in a responsible manner, taking care of your safety, health and welfare
- cooperate with the regular review of risk assessments and control measures
- attend training as appropriate
- use safety equipment or PPE provided
- report any defects in equipment and unsafe systems of work
- report any incidents or near-misses involving a biological agent
Managers are responsible for assessing their employees' risk of exposure to a biological agent.
You must identify the nature, degree and duration of any exposure to a biological agent. Control measures must be put in place to ensure the safety and health of employees.
Managers must ensure their employees get the training identified in the training needs assessment.
Training should cover:
- the hazardous properties of biological agents handled
- the level, type and duration of exposure
- the circumstances of work involving biological agents
- potential risks to health
- precautions to safeguard yourself and others in the workplace
- vaccines available
- steps to prevent incidents
- the process to follow where a suspected exposure has occurred
- standard operating procedures (SOPs)
Managers must offer vaccination, where one exists, for a biological agent exposure risk.
You should tell your employees about the advantages and disadvantages of vaccination.
Where employees do not wish to avail of vaccination or are non-responders to vaccination, additional control measures may be required.
Records of vaccination and follow-up treatment should be kept.
For queries on your vaccination immunity status contact your local occupational health service.
Health surveillance is a system of ongoing health checks. It helps with early detection of ill health and identifies measures that may help.
Health surveillance is needed if:
- an identifiable disease or adverse health effect may be related to the exposure
- there is a likelihood that a disease or health effect may happen due to work conditions
The HSE and a responsible medical practitioner must keep health and medical records. These are usually kept for 10 to 40 years. This depends on the length of time of the exposure.
Work clothing and personal protective equipment (PPE)
Personal protective equipment (PPE) must be provided where risks cannot be avoided or reduced by other control measures.
The manager in consultation with the employee must make an assessment of the hazards in the workplace to identify the correct type of PPE and ensure that it is appropriate to the risk.
COVID-19 risk assessments and guidance
Biological agents - laboratories
Acute healthcare settings (excluding laboratories)
Residential care facilities
Health and Social Care Services
Information and advice
For information and advice contact the health and safety helpdesk