Being aware of biohazards in the workplace is incredibly important when it comes to protecting the health and lives of both employees and the surrounding community. Biological hazards are most likely to be found where employees are working with other people, animals, and infectious substances. With that being said, biohazardous waste, often also referred to as infectious waste, is often present in workplaces such as hospitals, laboratories, emergency response facilities, schools, nursing homes, etc.
Mitigating the risk of people contracting any illness associated with biological hazards is a tall order. It requires the use of labels, impeccable hygiene, and special precautions depending on the type of biohazard, the environment it’s in, and the level of exposure that employees and the community face. With the threat of biohazardous waste hanging over the heads of those in the workplace, any and all necessary mitigation tactics must be used to prevent biohazard exposure before it becomes a health concern.
OSHA’s 5 Workplace Hazards
To begin a discussion on biohazards, it’s important to define the other categories of workplace hazards first. Gaining an overall understanding of what employees can potentially run into during the workday is essential for recognizing hazardous conditions. That can be anywhere from one existing hazard to a more complicated string of hazards linked together within a process. Recognition of existing hazards and what relationship they have with each other, if there is one, leads to effective solutions that provide a higher level of workplace safety.
With that being said, OSHA has defined five categories of workplace hazards that all employers must be aware of when perpetually looking to improve workplace conditions. These include:
Safety Hazards include any substance, object, or environmental condition that have the ability to hurt employees. Safety hazards are often found in the mining industry, construction, and manufacturing.
Examples of Safety Hazards: Safety hazards take the form of confined spaces, unorganized spaces such as blocked aisles or doorways, electrical hazards, moving machinery, and even slips and falls.
Chemical Hazards include fumes, vapors, particulates, gases, and liquids that are dangerous when ingested, inhaled, or touched. A wide variety of workplaces deal with these hazards every day, whether they be a chemical plant, in the construction industry, or anywhere else.
Examples of Chemical Hazards: Acids, heavy metals, paint, pesticides, solvents, and even some types of cleaning products are only a handful of chemical hazards to worry about.
Physical Hazards have the ability to harm employees and others without necessarily physically touching them. Again, these hazards are predominant in the construction, oil and gas, and mining industries.
Examples of Physical Hazards: Sun damage, radiation, explosions, and even loud noise are all prime examples of physical hazards.
Ergonomic Hazards are specifically caused by repetitive work. Without the correct form and practice, employees can strain their bodies in ways that may result in minor, and even permanent, damage. Ergonomic hazards are prevalent in all types of working environments ranging from office work to the construction industry.
Examples of Ergonomic Hazards: Repetitive strain such as lifting, bending, and even typing can damage tendons, ligaments, joints, bones, and muscles.
Biological Hazards can be seen in workplaces that deal with animals, people, and infectious material. The occupations that deal with biological hazards regularly include the meat industry, farming, lab work, the healthcare industry, etc.
Examples of Biological Hazards: Exposure to bodily fluids, feces, viruses, fungi, and bacteria are all examples of biological agents. This category of toxic waste has the potential to lead to sickness and even death in severe cases of biological contamination.
Aside from OSHA’s five hazard categories above, many don’t acknowledge the presence of psychosocial hazards even though they can be present in any workplace. An example of this type of hazard is bullying, which often leads to anxiety, depression, and fear in the individual subject to this poor behavior.
Each and every one of these hazard categories poses a different risk to those in their presence. Because of this, there are often unique OSHA and other state and local government regulations that must be followed to make the area as safe to work in as possible. Those regulations may include anything from special PPE, visual safety reminders, and specialized training, certifications, or permits to perform tasks.
What are the four types of biological hazards?
A pathogen is defined as any organism that produces disease. There are four primary types of biological hazards, also called biological agents, with the ability to produce toxins that can evoke an allergic reaction, illness, and even death. Employees and employers must be aware of the following biohazard pathogens within their unique working environment:
Bacteria are single celled organisms that can live in just about any environment, whether that be within another organism or out in the open. To clarify, bacteria that have the ability to infect a living organism, such as humans, are categorized as bacterial pathogens and often require antibiotics to get rid of the infection.
Urinary tract infections, E-coli, bacterial meningitis, cellulitis, and strep throat are all excellent examples of bacterial pathogens.
Viruses are made up of small pieces of genetic code such as DNA or RNA coated in protein. Once the body has been invaded by a virus, the body’s cells are used as virus replicating machines, destroying those cells in the process.
The common cold, flu, COVID-19, measles, chickenpox, and the norovirus are all examples of viral pathogens.
Fungi are yet another unique biohazardous pathogen made up of a cell containing a nucleus and covered in a thick cell wall that ultimately makes it harder to kill. There are only about three hundred types of pathogenic fungi that have the ability to harm humans.
Candidiasis, candida aurus, aspergillosis, valley fever, and ringworm are all examples of diseases caused by fungal infections.
Parasites are organisms that either live on or inside a host and feed off of it. Parasites aren’t considered to be pathogens like the three examples above because they depend on another living host to complete their life cycle. However, they still have the ability to result in disease and even death.
The three primary classes of parasites that harm humans are protozoa such as the ameba, flagellates, and ciliates that multiply within the body. Helminths are next and include nematodes, cestodes, and trematodes, also commonly known as worms. Then are the ectoparasites such as ticks, fleas, and mites that can transmit diseases to their hosts after feeding off of their skin and blood.
Recognizing the dangers that come with working in certain environments gives employees that much more knowledge in how to prevent an outbreak or becoming infected themselves. After this knowledge has been gathered, biohazard risk assessments come in play to take care of the rest.
Biohazard Risk Management
There are two essential elements required for working around biohazardous material in the workplace, and those are regular biohazard risk assessments and a well-established risk management culture. Risk assessments are meant to identify elements of a process that may harm employees. On the other hand, risk management practices relating to biohazardous material exist to make sure any unavoidable hazards are properly controlled.
Hazard identification and risk assessment completion are the first steps in creating an effective biohazard risk management program. Getting started with a risk assessment can be daunting, but thankfully the five-step method is simple, easy to understand, and inclusive to biohazard contamination prevention objectives. Those five steps include:
- Identifying all the existing hazards and risks in the workplace. In this case be on the lookout for any biological hazards that pose a health risk to employees. Do this by looking through past accident and illness records, look at non-routine operations, and remember to look for long-term hazards to employee health.
- Identifying who is at risk. Determining who will be there, at what time, and for how long, will help with implementing mitigation measures for any existing biological hazards.
- Evaluate the biohazard risks and determine the necessary controls. Evaluating the risks that biohazardous waste poses to employees and others who come into contact with this kind of toxic waste is essential for determining the necessary prevention tactics. This step is often synonymous with implementing the Hierarchy of Controls.
- Document all findings. Recording all the significant information such as what hazards exist, who is most likely to be harmed, and how the facility will be attempting to fix it. Organizations that have five or more employees are required to have this type of documentation in writing.
- Review the risk assessment. Are there more biohazards that were found? Should new control measures be introduced? Is there a new process that needs to be examined? These are some of the questions that need to be asked when reviewing a risk assessment.
OSHA also has a six-step risk assessment strategy for health and safety programs that lays out the following:
- Collect the existing information about existing workplace hazards
- Inspect the workplace for safety hazards
- Identify any health hazards
- Conduct incident investigations
- Identify all hazards that have been associated with emergency and non-routine situations
- Characterize the hazards, identify control measure, and prioritize control measures.
The last risk assessment/risk management technique that works exceptionally well for biohazardous waste dangers is called the 6 P’s of Risk Assessment and Risk Management. They are as follows:
- Pathogen – Identify any and all risks associated with the existing biohazard.
- Procedures – Identify any additional risks that surface during a procedure.
- Personnel – Review those who come into contact or regularly handle biohazards.
- Practices – Develop effective work practices for microbiological tasks.
- Protective Equipment – Provide the appropriate PPE as well as engineering controls/containment equipment to reduce exposure.
- Place – Consider the location of the work being performed with biohazardous material.
Putting in the effort to complete a risk assessment is the key to not only job standardization and workplace improvement but also helps to foster the greater goal of a long-term commitment to a successful risk management program. With that being said, risk management is all about risk prevention, which is why risk assessments are so integral.
Another critical element to biohazard contamination prevention is with the use of visual communication such as warning labels and signage. Because of the fact that labeling is so integral to every facility that works around biohazards frequently, it is important to follow federal regulations to protect the employees and prevent contamination from happening altogether.
There are five areas that biohazard labeling focuses on, those include:
- Contained specimens
- Contaminated clothing/laundry
- Sharps disposal containers
- Government regulated waste containers and other related containers
OSHA’s standard document 1910.1030(g)(1)(i)(A) for bloodborne pathogens directly states, “Warning labels shall be affixed to containers of regulated waste, refrigerators and freezers containing blood or other potentially infectious material; and other containers used to store, transport or ship blood or other potentially infectious materials…” Just like how placing a chemical hazard symbol on a GHS label is important for regulation compliance and safety, so is adding the biohazard symbol in black on a red or orange-red background. This easily recognizable pattern catches the eyes of employees quickly to warn them of dangerous conditions and take the necessary precautions to stay safe.
Aside from labels, biohazard warning signs can be affixed to doors, walls, or other surfaces that warn employees and others of the nearby existence of these biohazardous substances.
Overall, biohazard safety is a combined effort in gathering knowledge, applying safety precautions, and constantly reassessing the workplace for new areas of improvement.
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