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
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
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.