Greater awareness and prioritisation of prevention is necessary.

SW – 08/2020

This is the conclusion of a study, which was commissioned by the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) and looks at exposure to biological agents in the workplace and the associated health effects.

Awareness of a systematic prevention approach

The study concludes that there is currently no systematic approach to preventing occupational exposure to biological agents and recognising the health associated problems. There was a legal framework to protect people from exposure to harmful biological agents at the workplace. The preventive approach pursued in the European legal framework provides for a hierarchy of control measures, in which the priority is to eliminate the risk completely and only where this is not possible, collective organisational or technical measures should be taken. Individual measures, such as personal protective equipment, are provided for only as a "last resort".

However, awareness of this legal framework must be raised. Both employers and employees should be made aware of the importance of using collective, and not just individual, preventive measures.

In order to address risks in a structured way, the study considers it necessary to evaluate data on exposures and the resulting health problems. Providing more training and guidance to companies and workers could also help to ensure more systematic prevention.

Industries and groups of people particularly affected

For the following five sectors, the study identifies a particular exposure risk: in health care, animal-related occupations, waste and wastewater treatment, agriculture and occupations involving travel or contact with travellers. In all these sectors, with the exception of the health sector and laboratories, there is no awareness of exposure to biological agents.

Furthermore, groups such as young people, cleaning and maintenance workers, migrant workers and pregnant women are high risk. Improving access to information and implementing specific measures to protect such groups is therefore essential.


Exposure to biological agents is widespread and associated with a wide range of health-related issues, including infectious diseases, allergies and cancer. According to EU-OSHA estimates, around 320,000 workers worldwide die each year from work-related infectious diseases, 5,000 of them in the European Union.

Although the study was carried out before the COVID-19 pandemic, in view of the current situation the results of the study are also highly relevant in this respect and underline the need to protect workers from exposure to biological agents.

New SARS-CoV-2 occupational safety rule

For example, the Federal Ministry of Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS) has approved a new SARS-CoV-2 occupational safety rule. It applies to all sectors of the economy and the duration of the COVID-19 pandemic, is intended to provide the additional occupational health and safety measures required for protection against infection in the workplace and those specified in the SARS-CoV-2 occupational health and safety standard (see Report 4/2020), the general measures described above should be specified.

The aim is to reduce the risk of infection for employees and to prevent new infections in everyday working life. Companies that implement the technical, organisational and personal protection measures proposed in the SARS-CoV-2 occupational health and safety regulation can assume that they are acting in a law-abiding manner. For the supervisory authorities of the Member States, it provides a uniform basis for assessing the protective measures in the companies.