- Safety and Health Topics
- Biological Agents
Biological agents include bacteria, viruses, fungi, other microorganisms and their associated toxins. They have the ability to adversely affect human health in a variety of ways, ranging from relatively mild, allergic reactions to serious medical conditions—even death. Some organisms, including various types of mold and Legionella bacteria, are found readily in the natural and built environment. Many are capable of spreading from person to person (e.g., bloodborne pathogens and influenza viruses), either directly or indirectly; some, including Zika virus, are transmitted by insect vectors. In some forms, biological agents can also be weaponized for use in bioterrorism or other crimes.
This page provides a listing of the Safety and Health Topics pages OSHA maintains for various biological agents and toxins. Each of these pages offers detailed information about the specific biological agent or group of agents on which it focuses, including sections on identifying possible worker health hazards and control measures to prevent exposures.
Anthrax. Anthrax is an acute infectious disease caused by a spore-forming bacterium called Bacillus anthracis. It is generally acquired following contact with anthrax-infected animals or anthrax-contaminated animal products.
Avian Flu. Avian influenza is a highly contagious disease of birds which is currently epidemic amongst poultry in Asia. Despite the uncertainties, poultry experts agree that immediate culling of infected and exposed birds is the first line of defense for both the protection of human health and the reduction of further losses in the agricultural sector.
Bloodborne Pathogens and Needlestick Prevention. OSHA estimates that 5.6 million workers in the health care industry and related occupations are at risk of occupational exposure to bloodborne pathogens, including human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), hepatitis B virus (HBV), hepatitis C virus (HCV), and others.
Botulism. Cases of botulism are usually associated with consumption of preserved foods. However, botulinum toxins are currently among the most common compounds explored by terrorists for use as biological weapons.
Cytomegalovirus (CMV). Workers in childcare and healthcare facilities are among those at greatest risk for exposure to CMV, a common virus that affects tens of thousands of adults every year in the United States and is readily spread through contact with saliva and other body fluids from infected individuals.
Ebola. Ebola hemorrhagic fever (EHF) (sometimes called Ebola Virus Disease, or EVD) is the disease caused by infection with an Ebola virus. It is a type of viral hemorrhagic fever (VHF) brought on by any of several strains of viruses in the Ebolavirus genus. Ebola viruses are capable of causing severe, life-threatening disease.
Foodborne Disease. Foodborne illnesses are caused by viruses, bacteria, parasites, toxins, metals, and prions (microscopic protein particles). Symptoms range from mild gastroenteritis to life-threatening neurologic, hepatic, and renal syndromes.
Hantavirus. Hantaviruses are transmitted to humans from the dried droppings, urine, or saliva of mice and rats. Animal laboratory workers and persons working in infested buildings are at increased risk to this disease.
Legionnaires' Disease. Legionnaires' disease is a bacterial disease commonly associated with water-based aerosols. It is often the result of poorly maintained air conditioning cooling towers and potable water systems.
Measles. Measles is a vaccine-preventable but highly contagious and potentially serious bacterial disease that was previously eliminated in the United States. Unvaccinated travelers often bring the disease back from abroad, spreading it to other susceptible people and causing periodic outbreaks.
Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS). MERS is a potentially fatal, emerging respiratory disease caused by a novel coronavirus that primarily affects the lungs and breathing passages. MERS was first reported in Saudi Arabia in 2012, and at least 25 other countries have reported confirmed cases of MERS.
Molds. Molds produce and release millions of spores small enough to be air-, water-, or insect-borne which may have negative effects on human health including allergic reactions, asthma, and other respiratory problems.
Plague. The World Health Organization reports 1,000 to 3,000 cases of plague every year. A bioterrorist release of plague could result in a rapid spread of the pneumonic form of the disease, which could have devastating consequences.
Ricin. Ricin is one of the most toxic and easily produced plant toxins. It has been used in the past as a bioterrorist weapon and remains a serious threat.
Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS). Severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) is a viral respiratory illness causes by a coronavirus, called SARS-associated coronavirus (SARS-CoV). Since 2004, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), there have not been any known cases of SARS reported anywhere in the world.
Smallpox. Smallpox is a highly contagious disease unique to humans. It is estimated that no more than 20 percent of the population has any immunity from previous vaccination.
Tularemia. Tularemia is also known as "rabbit fever" or "deer fly fever" and is extremely infectious. Relatively few bacteria are required to cause the disease, which is why it is an attractive weapon for use in bioterrorism.
Viral Hemorrhagic Fevers (VHFs). Along with smallpox, anthrax, plague, botulism, and tularemia, hemorrhagic fever viruses are among six agents identified by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) as the most likely to be used as biological weapons. Many VHFs can cause severe, life-threatening disease with high fatality rates.
Zika Virus. Zika virus is most commonly spread through the bites of infected mosquitoes in areas with ongoing viral transmission. However, it can also be passed from person to person through sharps injuries (e.g., needlesticks) and other exposures to infectious blood, body fluids, and materials. Outdoor workers in areas with active transmission, along with those in laboratories handling samples of Zika virus, remain at the greatest risk of infection.
Workers have the right to:
- Working conditions that do not pose a risk of serious harm.
- Receive information and training (in a language and vocabulary the worker understands) about workplace hazards, methods to prevent them, and the OSHA standards that apply to their workplace.
- Review records of work-related injuries and illnesses.
- File a complaint asking OSHA to inspect their workplace if they believe there is a serious hazard or that their employer is not following OSHA's rules. OSHA will keep all identities confidential.
- Exercise their rights under the law without retaliation, including reporting an injury or raising health and safety concerns with their employer or OSHA. If a worker has been retaliated against for using their rights, they must file a complaint with OSHA as soon as possible, but no later than 30 days.
For additional information, see OSHA's Workers page.
How to Contact OSHA
Under the Occupational Safety and Health Act of 1970, employers are responsible for providing safe and healthful workplaces for their employees. OSHA's role is to help ensure these conditions for America's working men and women by setting and enforcing standards, and providing training, education and assistance. For more information, visit www.osha.gov or call OSHA at 1-800-321-OSHA (6742), TTY 1-877-889-5627.
In Focus: Ebola
- Worker Protections Against Occupational Exposure to Infectious Diseases. OSHA. Compares universal precautions, standard precautions, and transmission-based precautions.
- Avian Influenza Protecting Poultry Workers at Risk. OSHA Safety and Health Information Bulletin (SHIB), (December 13, 2004).
- U.S. Postal Service: Better Guidance Is Needed to Ensure an Appropriate Response to Anthrax Contamination. Government Accountability Office (GAO) Report GAO-04-239, (September 2004).
- Interim – Planning Guidance for the Handling of Solid Waste Contaminated with a Category A Infectious Substance. Pipeline and Hazardous Materials Safety Administration (PHMSA), U.S. Department of Transportation (DOT); Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), U.S. Department of Labor (DOL); Environmental Protection Agency (EPA); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC); and the Assistant Secretary for Preparedness and Response (ASPR), (January 2017). Provides consolidated, interagency guidance for employers and workers on best practices for safe waste handling throughout the waste cycle, from the point of waste generation through final disposition of treated waste products.