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Biological agents have a ubiquitous presence in the environment and are found in many daily and work sectors. As they are rarely visible, the associated risks are poorly appreciated, therefore, it is important to assess exposure to biological agents in work areas, seeking to minimize the consequences of their effects.

The Spanish National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (INSST) defines biological agents as microorganisms, including genetically modified ones, cell cultures and human endoparasites, which are capable of causing any type of infection, allergy or toxicity. .

Exposure to biological agents can cause acute and chronic, sometimes life-threatening, diseases with serious socio-economic consequences.


The European Agency for Occupational Safety and Health (EU-OSHA) explains that biological agents have a ubiquitous presence in the environment and in occupational settings, exposure can generally occur when workers come in contact with:

  • natural or organic materials such as earth, clay, plant materials (hay, straw, cotton, etc.);
  • animals and substances of animal origin (egg wool, fur, etc.);
  • food (for example, products, molds and yeasts);
  • organic dust (egg flour, paper dust, animal dander, pollen);
  • waste, sewage.
  • blood and other bodily fluids.

Additionally, the INSST indicates that biological agents are microscopic living beings that can cause harm to humans, such as: viruses, bacteria, human endoparasites (protozoa and helminths), fungi, cell cultures, and unconventional transmissible agents (prions). Also included in the definition are products or substances secreted or released by these biological agents with pathogenic capacity for humans, such as: endotoxins, mycotoxins, exotoxins, glucans, ergosterol, etc.; provided that its presence in the workplace is due to the presence of the biological agent that produces it.

Workplaces with the highest potential for exposure to biological agents include those in primary agriculture, food processing, wood processing, healthcare, biofuel power plants, waste treatment, and research.


EU-OSHA classifies biological agents into four risk categories, according to their potential to cause disease and the possibilities for prevention and treatment.

  • Group 1. Biological agent: means one that is unlikely to cause human disease.
  • Group 2. Biological agent: means one that can cause human disease and could be a hazard to workers; it is unlikely to spread to the community; prophylaxis or effective treatment is generally available.
  • Group 3. Biological agent: means one that can cause serious human disease and present a danger to workers; it may present a risk of spreading to the community, but effective prophylaxis or treatment is generally available.
  • Group 4. Biological agent: means one that causes serious human disease and is a danger to workers; it can present a high risk of spreading to the community; There is generally no effective prophylaxis or treatment available.

COVID-19 is a virus-like biological agent that is classified in group 4, and more dangerous, of the classification of the European Agency for Occupational Safety and Health (EU-OSHA).


EU-OSHA indicates that the health effects of biological agents include infections, zoonotic diseases, upper and lower respiratory tract symptoms, occupational asthma, sensitization, allergic reactions, systemic (multi-organ) effects, poisoning and cancers.

Biological agents can cause a wide range of adverse health effects, including:

  • infections caused by parasites, viruses, fungi, or bacteria.
  • acute and chronic allergies and respiratory symptoms caused by exposure to mold and organic dusts such as flour dust, animal dander, enzymes and mites.
  • poisoning or other toxic effects (for example, through endotoxins).

Biological agents can enter the human body through different routes depending on the agent and the nature of the process involved. These may include entry through:

  • damaged skin or mucous membranes.
  • Swallowing
  • Animal bites.
  • the urogenital tract.
  • puncture, bite and cuts.

EU-OSHA explains that in the case of any activity that may involve a risk of exposure to biological agents, employers are obliged to assess the risk to the health or safety of workers and establish the measures to be taken.

Directive 2000/54 / EC describes the principles of risk assessment, prevention and control of biological agents. The writing states that employers must:

  • Assess the risks posed by biological agents; and
  • Reduce the risk to workers by.
  • Elimination or substitution.
  • Prevention and control of exposure.
  • Inform and train workers; and
  • Provide health surveillance as appropriate.

Strategies for assessing and managing the risks posed by biological agents may be affected by the nature of the process and the activity involved.

Source: European Agency for Occupational Safety and Health (EU-OSHA)

El Instituto Nacional de Seguridad y Salud en el Trabajo de España (INSST)