Employers and occupational health professionals are being urged to familiarise themselves with new draft guidelines around hazardous biological agents in workplaces.
The draft guidelines were approved by representatives of governments, employers and workers at a gathering hosted by the International Labour Organization (ILO) from 20-24 June.
The adopted tripartite guidelines are the first for this type of risk, the ILO has said. They provide specific advice, aligned with international labour standards, on preventing and controlling work-related injuries, diseases, and deaths related to exposure to biological hazards in the working environment.
This includes questions related to the responsibilities and rights of competent authorities, employers, occupational health services and workers, workplace risk management, workers’ health surveillance, and preparedness and response to emergencies.
The approved draft guidance is expected to contribute to the next global standard-setting discussions of the International Labour Conference in 2024 and 2025, with the aim of approving a Biological Hazards Convention. If approved, ILO member states will have to incorporate these provisions into national legislative frameworks.
The guidelines define a biological hazard as any micro-organism, cell or other organic material that may be of plant, animal, or human origin, including any which have been genetically modified, and which can cause harm to human health. This may include, but is not limited to, bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi, prions, DNA materials, bodily fluids, and other micro-organisms and their associated allergens and toxins.
Health and safety
Both infectious and non-infectious biological hazards can be a significant health threat in numerous sectors. For example, according to the ILO, communicable diseases alone are estimated to have caused 310,000 work-related deaths worldwide in 2021, 120,000 of which were due to Covid-19.
The Institution of Occupational Safety and Health (IOSH) has emphasised that the core principle of the guidelines places a strong emphasis on the need for sound protocol-driven workplace biological hazard identification strategies and risk assessments processes, together with preventive and protective measures.
Ivan Williams Jimenez, policy development manager at IOSH, said: “These technical guidelines represent sound advice for workers and employers to better understand the potential exposure and health impacts of biological hazards in the workplace, at a time when the Covid-19 pandemic has clearly put on the spotlight the need for up-to-date guidance on this issue. With this in mind, we are urging businesses as well as workers themselves to familiarise themselves with this guidance.
“We believe this information might be of interest to those working in agriculture and forestry settings, laboratories, food processing plants, waste management facilities, and in healthcare and community services, and any other sectors in which workers can be exposed to biological hazards,” he added.