Biological Agent

Definition - What does Biological Agent mean?

A biological agent is a substance made from an organism, its products, or a virus. They are widely found in the natural world and everyday human environments, including workplaces, and they are mostly innocuous. Organisms classified as biological agents include bacteria, fungi, and internal parasites.

In some occupational settings, such as hospitals, biological agents that can cause harm to humans are an expected and ongoing occupational hazard. Exposure to biological agents can occur through both intentional exposure, such as when a healthcare employee purposefully works with a specific biological agent for research or testing purposes, as well as unintentional exposure, such as when a farm employee is inadvertently exposed to an animal pathogen.

Safeopedia explains Biological Agent

Due to the health risks that are associated with some biological agents, occupational health authorities enforce legal standards across a variety of industries in which work involves a significant risk of exposure to harmful pathogens.

Biological agents can be transmitted through a variety of sources, including natural materials (e.g. plants), animals, food, organic dust (e.g. pollen), wastewater, and bodily fluids. Hazardous biological agents have the potential to cause adverse health effects through infection, poisoning, or other toxic effects, as well as through activation of acute or chronic allergies—especially respiratory allergies.

Although most biological agents are not harmful, many are. Industries in which exposure to harmful biological agents is a concern include agriculture, health care and bioscience, food production, forestry, metal processing, wood processing, building materials processing, building renovation, waste collection, and within libraries and museums. Risk assessment and management of biological agents is part of an employer’s legal responsibility to ensure worker safety.

It is difficult to use occupational exposure limits to manage the risk posed by biological agents due to their ability to reproduce when in favorable conditions. The amount of exposure a worker has to a biological agent does not necessarily indicate whether a negative health effect will occur, as the strength of the exposed worker's immune response affects whether the pathogen is able to reproduce in quantities sufficient enough to cause harm.

Occupational health authorities have created a variety of standards for the management of biological agents. These standards are industry-specific (e.g. general industry, shipyards, and construction), as well as specific to individual biological agents and the subsequent risks posed. For example, OSHA enforces a variety of different mold standards that are each designed to address the type of mold risks present in a specific work context, and it also provides a bloodborne pathogen standard that is specifically designed to protect workers in the healthcare industry from harmful exposure to pathogens contained in human fluid or tissue.

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