ALERT Learn More | NASP Certification Program: The Path to Success Has Many Routes. Choose Yours

Bloodborne Pathogen

By: Jeffrey Cusack
| Last updated: March 20, 2021

What Does Bloodborne Pathogen Mean?

Bloodborne pathogens are viruses, bacteria, and other infectious agents that cause disease in humans and can be spread from human to human through exposure to infected blood. They pose a significant occupational hazard to workers in occupations that put them at risk of exposure to human bodily fluids, including doctors, nurses, laboratory technicians, and sanitation workers that handle biohazardous waste.

Bloodborne pathogen hazards can pose severe or life threatening risks to humans. Common bloodborne pathogens include Hepatitis B, Hepatitis C, and Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), all of which are potentially fatal viruses.

Safeopedia Explains Bloodborne Pathogen

OSHA’s rules for bloodborne pathogens apply to exposure to blood as well as “other potentially infectious materials” (OPIM) that contain blood. Bodily fluids that do not carry an inherent risk of transmitting bloodborne pathogens, such as saliva and feces, are not normally considered OPIM under OSHA’s bloodborne pathogen (BBP) standards.

OPIM do, however, include saliva and feces in any instance in which an employer can reasonably expect blood to be carried in those fluids. For example, during dental surgery a patient’s saliva is considered to be a potentially infectious material because there is a higher likelihood that the saliva would contain blood, which means that the saliva could pose a risk of exposure to a BBP.

Other types of OPIMs include:

  • Human tissue cultures
  • Cerebrospinal, pericardial, pleural, and peritoneal fluids
  • Semen and vaginal secretions
  • And any fluid where it the risk of the presence of blood is unknown

Bloodborne Pathogens in the Workplace

In the United States, approximately 5.6 million workers are estimated to come into contact with BBPs every year. Due to the frequency of exposure to BBP and the potentially severe health consequences those exposures can cause, OHS authorities consider BBPs to pose a significant health risk.

The majority of occupational illness caused by BBPs occurs due to transmission of the illness from a patient to a healthcare worker (HCW). In the context of occupational safety, HCWs include any person who works in a medical facility and faces a significant risk of exposure to potentially infectious materials, including unpaid volunteers.

Any incident in which infectious material comes into contact with an open wound is considered a hazardous exposure. One of the chief methods through which BBPs are transmitted from patient to HCW is through inadvertent cuts, punctures, and needlesticks from medical sharps that are contaminated by OPIM. An estimated 385,000 injuries of this type occur every year in the United States.

Due to the risks posed by these and other methods of exposure, OHS authorities require the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) during any instance in which there is a significant risk of exposure. The specific requirements vary depending on the task, but generally require the PPE used to be sufficient to prevent any blood or OPIM from making contact with the skin.

In addition, facilities that handle blood and OPIM are required to observe specific housekeeping standards which reduce the risk of inadvertent exposure to stored material. For instance, medical facilities must store any used (contaminated) sharps in purpose-built containers that are puncture proof and designed to eliminate the chance of accidental needlestick when used.

Because the risk posed by BBPs can be potentially fatal, any exposure to a blood borne pathogen is considered to be a reportable incident in the United States and other OHS jurisdictions. As policy, most workplaces with BBP exposure risks explicitly require workers to report any exposure incidents to their health and safety representative or other responsible person.

The enforcement guidelines for OSHA’s bloodborne pathogen standard rely heavily on the idea of “reasonable anticipation”. That is, when considering whether an employer is culpable for not protecting a worker from exposure to a BBP, enforcement agents must consider whether the employer could “reasonably anticipate” that there was a significant risk an exposure might take place.

In addition to the provision of personal protective equipment, employers are also required to meet a number of other criteria, which includes providing employees with training and education on the risks of BBPs and how to avoid exposures. Workers may also be required to complete formal education in workplace safety procedures in order to qualify for specific tasks or as part of their professional training.

In the event that a worker is exposed to a bloodborne pathogens, they may need to undergo a course of prophylactic treatment in order to minimize the risk of successful infection. In the United States, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) maintains a number of forms designed to formalize the process of reporting exposures, prophylaxis, and follow-up testing.


Share this Term

  • Facebook
  • LinkedIn
  • Twitter

Related Reading


HazardsEmployee HealthEHS ProgramsDisease

Trending Articles

Go back to top