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Biological hazards

Biological hazards are organic substances that pose a threat to the health of humans and other living organisms. Biological hazards include pathogenic micro-organisms, viruses, toxins (from biological sources), spores, fungi and bio-active substances. Biological hazards can also be considered to include biological vectors or transmitters of disease. Worldwide, it is estimated that around 320 000 workers die each year from communicable diseases caused by work-related exposures to biological hazards  (Driscoll et al. 2005; OSHA 2007).

Biological hazards pose risks for many workers in a wide variety of ways. For example, workers in health care professions are exposed to biological hazards via contact with human bodily matter, such as blood, tissues, saliva, mucous, urine and faeces, because these substances have a high risk of containing viral or bacterial diseases. Likewise, people who work with live animals or animal products (blood, tissue, milk, eggs) are exposed to animal diseases and infections, some of which (zoonoses) have the potential to infect humans (for example, Q-fever, avian flu or Hendra virus) or cause serious allergy via sensitisation.

Exposure to biological hazards in the work environment can also occur when people are in contact with laboratory cell cultures, soil, clay and plant materials, organic dusts, food, as well as rubbish, wastewater and sewerage. Exposure to moulds and yeasts is common in some industrial processes, in workplaces with air conditioning systems and high humidity, and in the construction industry.

Exposure to biological hazards is therefore widespread and the risk of exposure is not always obvious.

Australian workers’ compensation statistics indicate that around 1300 workers are compensated each year for diseases attributed to animal, human or biological factors.

Page last updated: 10 May 2019