Dealing with Hazardous Biological Agents in the Workplace
There can be few subjects more topical at the moment than the Covid-19 pandemic, as well as the many ways in which the microscopic organism responsible has been affecting almost every aspect of human life around the globe. Although pandemics are fortunately relatively rare events, that does not alter the fact that many of us could be unwittingly exposed to various other hazardous biological agents during a typical day’s work.
While the current campaign of hand-washing, wearing masks, and social distancing is slowing the spread of the Covid-19 virus, ultimately, we hope that vaccination will provide a longer-term solution. However, when dealing with the risk of any infection in a confined space, such as a hospital ward, an office or, indeed, any place of work, the most effective approach will be to eliminate the source. To achieve this, one must first locate and identify any potentially hazardous biological agents found to be present in a given workplace.
The agents in question are of four main types: bacteria, viruses, fungi (including moulds and yeasts), and endoparasitic organisms, such as worms. Some organisms may also produce chemical toxins, which, under certain circumstances, could pose a separate danger. While exposure may result in relatively mild symptoms, such as allergic rhinitis (hay fever) or hives, some microorganisms can cause severe illness and might even prove fatal for some of those affected. It is the task of industrial hygiene specialists to identify any hazardous biological agents that may pose a threat to employees and then to assist with the implementation of the appropriate protective and preventative measures.
The type of organisms present in a given location will often depend on the nature of the work undertaken. For example, people who work in an abattoir might risk exposure to anthrax, brucellosis, listeriosis, or bovine TB. There is a risk that the water supply or air filters may become a breeding ground for legionella in almost any factory setting. Wherever there is food, rodents that can carry the hazardous biological agent responsible for leptospirosis will often be a potential threat.
The first task of industrial hygiene personnel is to identify potential hazards. Where such risks may arise from exposure to microorganisms, they will collect swabs of walls, ceilings, and working surfaces; sample the ambient air and the water supply, and collect dust from air filters and any other potential reservoirs of infection. The samples will then be taken to a laboratory, where they will be examined by qualified microbiologists.
Should the tests reveal the presence of hazardous biological agents, the specialists will provide advice regarding the cleanup process and any additional countermeasures deemed necessary. They will also alert staff and management to the importance of strict adherence to the recommended measures. They may also assist with the implementation process. To ensure the countermeasures are being correctly implemented, observed consistently, and appear to be effective, the team will then conduct follow-up tests at pre-arranged intervals.
Ensuring the safety of personnel whilst at work is now a legal obligation. Where there is evidence of possible exposure to hazardous biological agents, expert help will be vital. For peace of mind regarding the safety of your working environment, consult the industrial hygiene specialists at IOH Solutions to arrange a professional occupational health risk assessment.