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Coronavirus as a biological hazard

Viimati uuendatud: 26.03.2020


What is a biological hazard?

Biological hazards are microorganisms (bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi, etc.), including genetically modified microorganisms, cell cultures, and human endoparasites, as well as other biologically active substances which may cause infectious diseases, allergies, or poisoning.

Pursuant to section 2 of Regulation no. 144 of the Government of the Republic of 5 May 2000 ‘The occupational health and safety requirements for working environment affected by biological hazards’, biological hazards are divided into risk groups. There are four risk groups:

The hazards included in the first risk group are not known to make humans ill; the group includes bee venom, as well as various toxins secreted by plants, snake venom, etc.

The hazards included in the second risk group may make humans ill and are thus a risk to the health of employees, but are not accompanied by the risk of infection for the wider population; there are efficient prevention and treatment methods for these hazards. This includes legionellosis or legionnaires’ disease and Lyme borreliosis. COVID-19 is caused by a novel coronavirus which is today officially known as SARS-CoV-2 (Severe acute respiratory syndrome coronavirus 2). Coronaviruses are currently placed in the second risk group in the classification of biological hazards, but the entire directive concerning these issues is being revised and updated by the European Commission and it is known that they are planning to move the older family members of COVID-19, such as SARS (Severe acute respiratory syndrome) and MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) to the third risk group. Thus, it cannot be ruled out that the virus which causes COVID-19 will be consequently classified to a higher risk group.

The hazards of the third risk group may cause severe illnesses for humans and are thus a serious threat to the health of the employee and may be accompanied by the risk of infection for the wider population, but there are efficient prevention and treatment methods for these hazards. This risk group includes hepatitis, or jaundice, and pneumonia.

The hazards of the fourth risk group cause severe illnesses for humans, are thus a serious threat to the health of the employee and may be accompanied by the risk of infection for the wider population; there are usually no efficient prevention and treatment methods for these hazards. This risk group includes the Ebola virus. 

The employer’s obligations concerning biological hazards in the context of the coronavirus

In the case of all works which are accompanied by the risk of coming in contact with biological hazards, the employer must determine the type, extent, and duration of the risk of the employee being infected in the course of the working environment risk analysis and, based on this, assess the risk for the employee’s health and implement necessary precautionary measures.

Since an employee comes in contact with other people in the case of most jobs, the contact with a biological hazard is always present in these cases. While contacts with customers or co-workers have not called for implementation of special measures so far, the situation has now changed which means that there is new information about the impact of the hazard on human health. Thus, the current risk assessments must be reviewed and necessary measures must be implemented to reduce the health risk. It is up to every employer to decide which measures are necessary in a specific working environment as they know the operations and the working environment of their company better than anyone else. We stress the importance of the risk analysis because it is not possible to find good solutions unless the nature of the problem is clear. If the idea of conducting the risk analysis seems to be a huge task, we will make it easier by explaining below what should be focussed on in the case of biological hazards.

The employer must consider:

  • The type of the risk of infection – how the employee can come in contact with the virus. As far as we know, the virus is transmitted as a droplet infection and endures on various surfaces for up to 72 hours. This means that the employee may contract the virus by touching various surfaces and bringing it to their nose, eyes, or mouth with their hands. This virus involves the respiratory tract and the infecting occurs via the respiratory tract.
  • The duration of the risk of infection – the extent of the working time in which the employee is in contact with the hazard. Whether the employee is in contact with customers 8 hours a day or for a few hours.
  • The extent of the risk of infection is determined according to the type and duration of the risk of infection. The longer and the more frequently the employee must be in contact with customers, the greater the risk assessed. Use the matrix of your current risk analysis for assessment of the risk. It should be kept in mind that the coronavirus is currently considered highly contagious. The group of the employees at risk must also be taken into consideration in assessment of the risks – at the moment.

Based on the assessment of the risk, measures must be implemented for prevention or alleviation of the impact of the hazard.

These measures may include, for example:

  • Minimising the number of employees in the area of influence of the hazards as much as possible – that means that the work should be organised so that as few employees as possible would come in contact with colleagues/customers. In order to ensure that the employees come in contact with customers as little as possible, counselling sessions may be held over the phone or Skype instead of personal meetings and delivery of parcels can be organised so that the courier will not have to directly come in contact with the customer.
  • Another good practice for reducing the number of contacts is keeping the same personnel in one shift – while employees were moved from one shift to another before and thus came in contact with a higher number of colleagues, all shifts should be composed of certain people now.
  • Implementation of the measures also involves allowing a certain number of customers in the premises (office, service area) at a time and marking their pathways and the places where they are permitted to stand – the people are guided to keep a distance.
  • Disposal of potentially infectious materials (e.g. used tissues) should be organised so that entry of biological hazards into the working environment is prevented or the presence of such hazards in the working environment is as low as possible. The cleaner should take the trash out of the trash can in the trash bag, not pull the trash, incl. infectious trash, out of the trash bag.
  • Cleaning operations should be reviewed – are they sufficient in the current situation. Think about how often it is necessary to clean and disinfect surfaces. Who is cleaning – discuss this with the employees, if necessary, if cleaning is not one of their regular duties. Buy disposable gloves for cleaning to protect the cleaner from coming into contact with the infection in the course of cleaning.
  • The employer must monitor that the employees perform their duties correctly. Now, attention should also be paid to whether the employees observe the hygiene requirements, i.e. wash and disinfect their hands.
  • There is another measure which is described in the regulation of biological hazards and which may help to prevent contracting infectious diseases in many cases. It is ensuring a possibility of vaccination for the employees who come in contact with biological hazards, if there is an efficient vaccine. This means that the employer must organise vaccination of the employees, if necessary and possible. An occupational health doctor may be consulted to determine which employees the employer should provide vaccination to. Unfortunately, no efficient vaccine has been developed yet in the situation of the current pandemic.
  • If contact with the biological hazards cannot be prevented in any other way, collective protective equipment or personal protective equipment must be used. In the case of implementation of protective measures, collective protective measures and equipment must be preferred to personal protective equipment. For example, installation of glass walls between the customer and the customer attendant, reducing the number of customers, and increasing distances must be preferred to using masks. The downside of using masks in customer service is that a mask which covers the mouth complicates communication, while a glass wall disturbs less.
  • The action plan – think about how to act if it turns out that one of your employees or customers is a carrier of the virus (has fallen ill). Think about who must be notified of the situation. For example, the human resources manager or specialist who will in turn notify the employees who have come in contact with the employee (customer) who fell ill and, if necessary, it is agreed which duties the employee can perform in the form of teleworking while quarantined at home. Also, think about how to disinfect the premises, if necessary. It is a good idea to find the respective companies and their contact information in advance so that there is no need for market research once the service is required.

One of the measures introduced in the regulation is installation of a ‘Biological hazard’ warning sign in the areas of the working environment which are affected by biological hazards. This measure remains necessary and relevant, but it is not necessary to put up additional signs due to the coronavirus, as all entrances and many other places should be equipped with the signs in this case. As the virus may be contracted anywhere today and all kinds of information channels are used to notify people of the risk of infection, adding a warning sign on the door of a store, for example, would not serve the purpose or help to reduce the hazard.

The regulation also includes the employer’s obligation to measure the biological hazard concentration in the air of the working environment, if necessary and technically possible. This measure mainly refers to measuring the mould spore concentration of the air; it is not technically possible or necessary in the context of the coronavirus.

The obligation to define an action plan in the case of a risk of an accident arising from biological hazards specified in the regulation is designed for the situation in which a material processed in the lab is leaked into the environment as a result of an accident, for example. Here, the accident does not mean potentially contracting an infectious diseases at work.

Instructing and training of employees

The employee must be aware of everything which concerns health risks in the working environment, precautionary measures for preventing the impact of biological hazards, hygiene requirements, the use of personal protective equipment, prevention of hazardous situations, and action in the event of a risk of an accident. This means that the employees must be notified after conducting or updating the risk analysis or implementation of new measures. If the employees do not know why certain measures have been implemented or why the employer has established new rules, misunderstandings will arise. Even in busy and confusing times, it is necessary to find time for communicating with the employees and explaining why certain rules have been established and why it is important to follow them.

Furthermore, the employer must also make sure that the employees follow the rules – new as well as old ones – and respond, if necessary, i.e. let the employee know what they have done wrong and how to behave properly.

Cooperation

Cooperation in creating and maintaining a safe and healthy working environment cannot be overestimated. Especially now when everyone is in a new situation and there is not enough knowledge for finding a solution because we have not experienced similar circumstances before. Most of the coronavirus-related issues which reach the Labour Inspectorate today are related to the fact that the employer has not explained to the employees which measures have been implemented and how the measures protect the employee’s health. Another side of the problem is that the employer refuses to hear the employees’ worries and won’t take their fears seriously. Thus – employers, please hear out your employees and employees, please make your suggestions to the employer of how to organise work more safely.

Külastusi 3022, sellel kuul 3022

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