Hazardous Biological Agents – should I be concerned?
What are hazardous biological agents? Let’s break it down: a biological agent is defined as “any micro-organism, microbial by-products or metabolites, cell, or organic material, with plant, human or animal origin (including those that have been genetically modified)1. What about those chicken nuggets that we eat? Yup, that’s organic material, so a Biological Agent. Bacteria in yoghurt and cheese? Yup, that’s a biological culture of animal origin, therefore a Biological Agent.
That’s why it is important to distinguish biological agents from their more menacing cousins, Hazardous Biological Agents. Some microorganisms promote good digestion, enzymes assist in chewing and swallowing food, and mushrooms make for an alternative to meat (for the vegans out there). Others can make you sick, and even cause death.
4 Categories of Hazardous Biological Agents
What we are particularly concerned with as Hygienists are what we would consider as “hazardous biological agents”. These agents are loosely based off 4 categories (group 1-4), with severity increasing with the grouping.
Group 1 HBA: HBA that are unlikely to cause human disease.
Group2 HBA: an HBA that may cause human disease and be a hazard to exposed persons, which is unlikely to spread to the community and for which effective prophylaxis and treatment is available.
Group 3 HBA: an HBA that may cause human disease, which presents a serious hazard to exposed persons, and which may present a risk of spreading to the community, but for which effective prophylaxis and treatment is available.
Group 4 HBA: an HBA that causes severe human disease and is a serious hazard to exposed persons and which may present a high risk of spreading to the community, but for which there is no prophylaxis or treatment available.
As per the Occupational Health and Safety Act 85 of 1993, every employer shall provide and maintain, as far as is reasonably practicable, a working environment that is safe and without risk to the health of his employees.
One aspect of this that is often ignored and underappreciated is how we are exposed in our everyday life to these bacteria, viruses, and microorganisms that could potentially place us at risk of illness. We are all aware of COVID-19 (caused by the SARS-CoV2 virus, Group 3 HBA), but we mustn’t forget the effect other viruses and bacteria can have on the workplace (such as influenza, Group 2 HBA, or even TB, Group 3 HBA). Having experienced and lived through the social lockdowns, economic losses, and health effects of the covid pandemic, it is safe to say our society was well underprepared for a biological threat, both within the workplace, and community at large.
That’s where the Hazardous Biological Agents regulations, 2022 come into play. This legislative tool allows for employers to better prepare for future biological threats, to prevent unnecessary loss.
Who do the regulations apply to?
The HBA Regulations apply to every employer or self-employed person where HBA may be produced, processed, used, handled, stored, or transported, as well as workplaces where exposure to an HBA may occur, such as public buildings, transport, and domestic work.
Determining HBA Exposure and Modes of Transmission
The first step any business should take is to determine who might be exposed, and to what possible extent. This forms the base philosophy of risk assessment. Hazardous Biological Agents Risk Assessments will look at the severity versus the likelihood of a negative event occurring and can assist companies in preventing high levels of exposure.
HBA can spread from 4 known routes of transmission, namely: contact (direct contact with the substance), droplet transmission (where the HBA is transmitted in droplets suspended in the air, such as through coughing or sneezing), common vehicle transmission (shared contact/contaminated utensils) and vector borne transmission (such as malaria through mosquitos).
As mentioned earlier, a risk assessment is required to be performed to establish the nature of the HBA, routes of exposure, where the HBA can be found, current control measures and what effects the HBA can have. This is to make sure employers protect employees to the best of their ability.
Information, training, and awareness
The outcomes of this risk assessment must be communicated to all employees so that they are aware of the risks in their workplace and can take appropriate measures to protect themselves.
Employees must also be informed of all exposure monitoring and medical surveillance that’s relevant to them.
Personal Protection Equipment
To prevent personal exposure, items such as gloves, face masks, shields, gowns, and other items of clothing may be required to prevent contact, inhalation, or ingestion of HBA. Good hand hygiene procedures can significantly reduce exposure through contact (including reducing cross-contamination).
With any PPE, employees need to be trained in how to use the PPE correctly.
Other controls that are effective at preventing the spread of HBA include:
- Separation of different areas and facilities
- Local exhaust ventilation
- Good general ventilation with a high number of air changes per hour.
- Air and surface disinfection
- Positive static air pressure differential for infectious and human occupied spaces
- Access control
Medical Surveillance Program Evaluation
Once the risk has been categorized, medical surveillance, under the curatorship of the Occupational Medical Practitioner must be performed to determine the potential extent of exposure, as well as the condition of the exposed employee, through symptom monitoring.
The HBA Risk assessment should be reviewed at intervals not exceeding two years, as well as if:
- The previous risk assessment and control measure no longer applies,
- If scientific or technological advancements make more efficient control methods possible,
- If any substantial changes occur to the work methods, type of work, type of equipment used to control noise exposure, or type of machinery, plant, and equipment.
It is imperative to identify how people can be exposed in the workplace, and to understand how hazardous biological agents can spread, what are the health effects and what can be done to ensure that employee health is not compromised, and that society can strive, even when faced with severe epidemics.