Exposure to biological agents may arise in a host of industries and settings. It is a particular risk in hospitals, laboratories, waste disposal, farming and veterinary. It may also arise in prisons, post offices and other settings.
The regulations in relation to biological agents implement EU Directives. They apply to a wide range of biohazards which are classified in accordance with a number of groups and types. They include certain types of bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi and other agents. Over 300 types are listed.
Group 1 agents are unlikely to cause human disease. Group 2 agents may cause human disease and might be hazardous, although it is unlikely to spread generally. Group 3 agents can cause severe human disease and present a serious hazard, which may spread. Group 4 biological hazards cause severe human diseases and are at high risk of spreading in the community.
Different categories of biological agent are identified, depending on their potential impact. The categorisation into risks groups determines the requisite precautions. The extent of duties applicable depend on the group to which the agent belongs.
A written risk assessment must be undertaken in relations to exposure to biological agents. Preventative measures must be taken. Risks are to be avoided entirely or are to be taken, only where they can be properly managed. Specific preventative measures are required.
Employers must avoid the use of harmful biological agents. The agent must be replaced if possible.
A risk assessment is required. It must be kept and maintained in written form. Where several agents are present, the assessment must be on the basis of all of them. The risk assessment must be revised and reviewed periodically based on updated information and any reclassification of the particular biological agents present.
The regulations require that steps are to be taken on foot of the risk assessment. Where the risk assessment reveals a risk to health and safety, the employer must reduce exposure to as low a level as necessary to protect health and safety, if the exposure cannot be prevented.
The regulations set out required measures, including the minimisation of exposure, the design of work systems, precautionary measures, hygiene measures, bio-hazard signs, emergency response plans, testing for the presence of agents, safe systems of collection and storage and safe handling. Employees are also obliged to deploy precautionary and preventative measures.
There are particular requirements in respect of certain activities which carry potential exposure to biological agents. They include certain food production and agricultural activities, contact with animal food products, health care, post-mortem units, veterinary, refuse disposal plants and sewage purification.
Special obligations apply to certain areas of work involving specific risks from biological agents. They include, in particular, sewage treatment and disposal, working in laboratories, working in healthcare including hospitals, work connected with food production, work in agriculture and work involving contact with animals.
Specific obligations apply to employers in the area of healthcare and veterinary work. Decontamination and disinfection requirements and procedures apply. Containment measures are required in respect of group 4 agents. Employers operating laboratories with animals who have been infected with biological agents or suspected to be so are subject to specific obligations.
In the case of works with certain categories of biological agents, one of more of the following requirements may apply
- prior notification to the HAS;
- hygiene and protective equipment;
- the use of vaccines;
- health surveillance by employers.
The HSA is to be furnished on request with information on which the risk assessment is based.
Prior notice of certain types of work must be given. 30 days’ prior notice is required to the HSA of the works including
- works involving the use of group 2 to 4 agents;
- works with certain particular agents;
- first time works with agents in particular classes;
- circumstances where previous notifications require to be updated
The notification must give particulars of the business, persons responsible, risk assessments and particulars of the biological agents involved. Accidents and incidents must be notified to the HSA.
Personal Protective Equipment
Where there is a risk from biological agents, employees must have the appropriate personal protective equipment. There must be suitable washing and cleaning facilities. There must be a clear separation from where food and drink are consumed or stored.
Personal protective equipment must be properly maintained, cleaned and checked as required. Working clothes and protective equipment which may be contaminated must be removed at the end of the working period and separated. It must be decontaminated. The protective clothing and equipment must be cleaned, decontaminated or disposed of, as required. This includes disposal of defective clothing, masks and gloves for healthcare workers.
Training / Information
There are requirements for training and information, in the context of biological agents. Comprehensive information on the risks, the required measures by way of hygiene and protective measures, equipment and procedures must be communicated in advance. Written instructions must be given.
Where necessary, signs must be displayed in respect of procedures in the case of accidents and incidents. There is an obligation on employees to notify supervisors, where appropriate.
An employee must have access to the relevant information on the risks which relate to him or her. They must be made available for inspection by the HSA and certain other parties, including the safety representative. On termination of business, the employer must give particulars of exposed employees to the HSA.
The employer must compile lists of employees who may be exposed to group 3 and group 4 agents. They must include particulars of the agents concerned. They must be maintained for at least 10 years after the termination of exposure, or longer in certain cases.
If there is a continuing risk to human health, the records must be maintained for up to 40 years, depending on the nature of the risks involved. Longer periods of retention are required in relation to agents which involve persistent or latent infections, evolving diagnosis and toxicology and generally, agents whose effects may manifest themselves over a longer period.
Employees must undertake health surveillance measures. They must be undertaken and periodically reviewed under the supervision of a medical practitioner. There are matters of which the medical practitioner must take account. There are obligations on medical practitioners in relation to proposals for countermeasures and records.
An employer may be obliged to assess whether vaccines are appropriate or necessary. Vaccines may only be used in accordance with guidelines. Employees should be informed of the benefits and risks. They must be offered free of charge. Certification is required which must be furnished to the employee and the HSA on request.
Many civil claims have involved injuries from hypodermic needles, in the course of employment. In some cases, the employer has been found liable on common law principles of negligence on the basis of failure to provide a safe system of work.
Some cases have involved employees who have lifted up waste, which has caused infection and injury. A number of claims have made by employees who have been posted abroad, to countries in which particular diseases are prevalent or rampant. Some cases have involved security personnel and Gardaí, who have been stabbed with syringes with blood of unknown origin.
Some cases have been brought on the basis of claimed reaction to the prospect of disease, from accidental skin pricks and cuts. Claims based on needle injuries from syringes containing substances of unknown origin with an apprehended risk of infection have been accepted in principle. However, the courts have not readily allowed such claims, in the absence of sufficient evidence of demonstrable psychological injury.
References and Sources
Safety, Health and Welfare and at Work Law in Ireland 2nd Ed 2008 Byrne Ch.9
Safety & Health Acts Consolidated & Annotated 2013 Byrne
Health, Safety & Welfare Law in Ireland 2012 Kinsella
Health & Safety: Law and practice 2007 Shannon
Health & Safety at Work 1998 Stranks Ch.6
Civil Liability for Industrial Accidents 1993 While
The Health and Safety Authority www.hsa.ie
Health and Safety Executive (UK) www.hse.gov.uk
Tolleys Health and safety at work, 2017 29th ed Bamber,
Corporate liability: work related deaths and criminal prosecutions 3rd ed. Author FORLIN, G.
Health and safety at work: European and comparative perspective Author ALES, E., ed.
Health and Safety Law 5th Ed 2005 Stranks
Principles of Health and Safety at Work (8th ed) Holt, Allan St. John; Allen, Jim;
The Law of Health and Safety at Work 2014/15 (23rd ed) Moore, Rachel; Winter, Hazel;
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work Act 2005
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) (Amendment) (No. 3) Regulations 2016 (S.I. No. 370 of 2016)
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) (Amendment) (No. 2) Regulations 2016 (S.I. No. 70 of 2016)
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) (Amendment) Regulations 2016 (S.I. No. 36 of 2016)
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) (Amendment) Regulations 2012 (S.I. No. 445 of 2012)
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) (Amendment) Regulations 2010 (S.I. No. 176 of 2010)
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) (Amendment) Regulations 2007 (S.I. No. 732 of 2007)
Safety, Health and Welfare at Work (General Application) Regulations 2007 (S.I. No. 299 of 2007)
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