For the greater part of human history, workers across the globe have had little option but to operate in conditions that posed a severe threat to their health and safety or face unemployment. In time, some selected industries became subject to a degree of government control regarding their working conditions. However, only in 1993 did a new act extend regulations covering threats such as harmful chemicals and hazardous biological agents to include workers in all fields.

Hazardous Biological Agents

Occupational Health and Safety

The Occupational Health and Safety Act (85 of 1993) was the agent of change. The act defined a list of potential workplace hazards and, where appropriate, the acceptable exposure limits. It also authorised the training of occupational health specialists whose role would be to identify risks, evaluate their seriousness and provide advice on how to mitigate them.

Varying Risks

The risk to workers varies between workplaces. It may be physical, such as exposed electrical wiring, or chemical, such as corrosive liquids and toxic gases. It might also be due to a hazardous biological agent. The latter could be a microbial contaminant such as Legionella in a factory’s water supply, or perhaps a bacterial culture in a pathology or pharmaceutical laboratory. Other examples include Salmonella or Campylobacter on poultry farms, while anthrax spores may be present in untreated animal products like wool and hides. Among the more recent concerns of occupational health specialists is the potential threat posed by genetically modified organisms.

Hazardous Biological Agents – Detection, Risk Reduction and Elimination

In practice, hazardous biological agents could pose some degree of danger in almost any working environment. However, that risk is far higher in certain occupations. The personnel of hospitals, medical research labs, veterinary clinics and pharmaceutical companies face the most significant threat. Workers in abattoirs, farms, sewage treatment plants and on farms are also at risk of infection. In each case, the most effective form of defence against these and all other threats is for trained specialists to conduct a comprehensive risk assessment at regular intervals.

Typically, hazardous biological agents can be present in the air or water supply, or on ceilings, walls, floors or work surfaces. To detect them, an inspection team must take samples from all such sources using the appropriate tools such as swabs and air-samplers. After collection, those samples will require testing. This might include a microscopic examination, inoculation and incubation of various artificial culture media to check for microbial growth, and a battery of biochemical tests to identify any isolated organisms.

After confirming that hazardous biological agents are present, the inspector’s next step will be to recommend methods to eliminate them where possible. Where this may not be practical, measures to reduce the level of risk and to provide adequate protection for exposed personnel should follow. The latter could involve anything from just wearing a mask and regular handwashing to using special breathing apparatus or wearing a “hazmat” suit. Equally important is to educate management and staff about the risks and the importance of complying strictly with all recommended protective measures.

IOH Solutions

IOH Solutions is a company with industry-wide experience in identifying and managing hazardous biological agents and all potential risks to occupational health. For your peace of mind and your employees’ safety, get in touch to arrange a professional workplace risk assessment.