Biological Agents in Occupational Safety and Health

There are more than 5 million workers in Germany who are potentially at risk of coming into contact with biological agents in their workplaces. Such exposures can cause infections, the development of allergies, or toxic reactions.

Woman collects eggs in a modern chicken coop
© Uwe Völkner, Fotoagentur FOX

Biological agents comprise, for example, health-threatening bacteria, moulds, parasites, viruses, and prions. A full list of all the biological agents that are currently known would run to several thousand species, including their genetically modified forms. Given the extensive distribution of biological agents, they are not only present during activities performed in laboratories. Above all, contact with biological agents affects employees in the waste and recycling industries, healthcare staff dealing with infected patients, veterinary personnel, and workers on livestock farms.

Some biological agents spread infectious diseases and can therefore be harmful to workers. Others are not infectious, but may trigger sensitising or toxic reactions. This latter group includes a number of moulds and a few species of bacteria. They play a significant role in agriculture and the refurbishment of buildings, as well as other fields, and can give rise to sensitising and toxic reactions in the respiratory tract.

Challenges for occupational safety and health

Employees come into contact with biological agents of unknown composition at a wide variety of workplaces. Thus, challenges for occupational safety and health (OSH) result from the co-occurrence and interaction of multiple factors when biological agents are handled in the workplace. Factors such as changing work environments and climatic conditions have to be taken into account.

Risk assessment of biological agents

In the field of biological agents, the Federal Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (Bundesanstalt für Arbeitsschutz und Arbeitsmedizin, BAuA) approaches occupational safety and health at multiple levels to protect employees against biological hazards. BAuA’s experts participate actively in the work of the Committee on Biological Agents (Ausschuss für Biologische Arbeitsstoffe, ABAS), helping keep the Technical Rules for Biological Agents (Technisches Regelwerk für Biologische Arbeitsstoffe, TRBA) up to date. In addition, BAuA operates laboratories where researchers develop new measurement methods and assessment tools, as well as conducting systematic fieldwork on bioaerosols in the workplace.

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