It is important to make risk assessments when working with biological agents, as it is with all type of work in laboratories. Such risk assessments can be used to develop routines and safety measures that can prevent incidents and accidents from occuring. Facilities, fittings and equipment shall be adapted to the type of work being done. Handling and safety instructions can be based on what normally is referred to as "Good Laboratory Practise" (GLP) and supplemented by further instructions dependent on the nature of the biological agents used.
Risk group 1
Includes biological agents that normally do not cause infections in humans, e.g. Escherichia coli K-12, Saccharomyces cerevisiae (baker's yeast).
Risk group 2
Infectious agent that can cause illness in humans and can pose a danger to employees. For most people there is effective treatment, or preventive measures, such as vaccination. The infectiousness is usually limited. Examples of such infectious agents are Salmonella spp. (most), streptococci, staphylococci and adenoviruses.
Risk group 3
Infectious agent that can cause serious illness in humans and can pose a serious danger to employees. Often there is effective treatment, or preventive measures, such as vaccination. There may be a risk of dissemination into the society. Examples of such infectious agents are Bacillus anthracis (anthrax), E. coli O157: H7 (bloody diarrhoea sometimes with life-threatening conditions), Yersinia pestis (plague), Yellow fever virus, HIV virus, Rabies lyssavirus and SARS-CoV-2 (COVID-19).
Risk group 4
Infectious agent that can cause very serious illnesses in humans and can pose a serious danger to employees. There is rarely the possibility of effective treatment, or preventive measures, such as vaccination. It can have major consequences if such an infectious agent is disseminated into the society. Examples of such agents are Lassa fever virus, Ebola virus and Marburg virus which all give rise to diseases (with bleeding in internal organs) for which the mortality is up to 50-90%.
What are the rules for work with biological agents?
Below is an excerpt from the regulations for work with biological infectious agents. The complete regulations are found in AFS 2018:4 on "Smittrisker" (Infection risks), only in Swedish, and AFS 2001:1 on Systematic Work Environment Management.
- To minimize the risks associated with working with infectious biological agents, premises, furnishings and equipment must be adapted to the ongoing activities.
- Inspection and maintenance must be carried out to avoid ill-health or accidents.
- Risk assessments must be made and documented in writing, with special attention being paid to identifying: i) what work steps can entail risk of infection, ii) how infectious agents could cause infection, iii) what and how serious consequences it can have for the individual employee to be exposed to infectious agents and iv) the length of time that employees are at risk of being exposed to infectious agents at work.
- The employer must take protective measures considering the nature of the work to avoid spreading of infectious agents, and to keep the number of employees at risk of being exposed to infectious agents as low as possible.
- In order to prevent employees from being exposed to infectious agents, the employer must ensure that employees receive the practical and theoretical training and information necessary before work on infectious agents begins. The training and information shall include at least i) the outcome of the risk assessment, including an account of what health risks the agents may cause, ii) the requirements for hygiene measures, iii) how and what safety measures to apply, and iv) how to report internally on adverse events.
- The employer must ensure that employees, who may be at risk of contact with body fluids from humans and animals, receive special training on the infection risks that may occur within the activity.
- The employer shall, if necessary, offer vaccination, other medical preventive measures, controls and follow-up checks, if employees may have been exposed to, or risk being exposed to, infectious agents at work. It follows from the Work Environment Act that the costs of such measures must be taken by the employer and not by the employees. The employer must ensure that employees are informed about the advantages and disadvantages of vaccination, that vaccines do not always provide complete protection against infection and that other protective measures must therefore also be taken.
- Good personal hygiene should be observed when working with infectious agents i.e. good microbiological practices must be followed and the employer must ensure that workers can wash or disinfect their hands, in work with infection risks.
- Protective clothing should be used for work that may involve exposure to infectious agents. The employer must ensure that employees take off protective clothing and any personal protective equipment before leaving the work area. The employer must also ensure that protective clothing and personal protective equipment are decontaminated, washed in at least 60 °C and destroyed if necessary.
- The employer must ensure that there are routines for decontaminating in a safe way contaminated material, equipment and waste. This decontamination should be done as soon as possible.
- Warning signs that display a biohazard symbol with the text "Smittrisk" and particulars of risk group or biosafety level shall be posted at the entrances to facilities or working areas where infectious agents are used.
- The employer must keep records of the employees who may have been exposed to infectious agents of risk group 3 or 4.
- Work with infectious agents of risk group 2, 3 or 4 must be reported to the Swedish Work Environment Authority no later than 30 days before work commences.
What are the rules for working with biological agents that have been genetically modified?
Read more about the rules for work with genetically modified microorganisms.