Biological hazards are organic substances that pose a threat to the health of humans and other living organisms. They include pathogenic micro-organisms, viruses (e.g. Hepatitis, HIV, avian flu, Q-fever), toxins, spores, fungi and bio-active substances. Biological hazards can also be considered to include biological vectors or transmitters of disease (e.g. blood, mosquitoes or agricultural animals).
Worldwide it is estimated that around 320 000 workers die each year from communicable diseases caused by work-related exposures to biological hazards, while many others experience short term illnesses or develop chronic asthma or serious allergies due to their exposures. Despite the serious threat biological hazards pose for Australian workers, very little is known about patterns of exposure to various biological hazards within the Australian workforce. With this in mind, in 2008 the National Hazard Exposure Worker Surveillance [NHEWS] survey collected information on 4500 Australian workers’ exposure to biological materials in their workplace and the provision of controls in workplaces to prevent health problems caused by exposure.
This report presents a detailed description of the results of the study and discusses the implications for work health and safety policy. Notable findings of the study include that approximately 19 per cent of workers surveyed reported they worked in places where there were biological materials. These workers were considered exposed to biological hazards. Of these, 75 per cent were in contact with human bodily matter and 30 per cent were in contact with live animals or animal products. Exposure to biological hazards was concentrated in the Health and community services and Agriculture, forestry and fishing industries.
Relative to international studies, very small percentages of workers reported exposure to wastes (e.g. biohazard waste, sewerage or rubbish), moulds, bacteria, algae or plants, suggesting these biological hazards may be underreported in the NHEWS study. The adequacy of biological hazard control for workers in contact with animals or their products requires attention and further investigation.