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. These organisms are widespread in the natural environment; they are found in water, soil, plants, and animals. Because many microbes reproduce rapidly and require minimal resources for survival, they are a potential danger in a wide variety of occupational settings.
This page provides a starting point for technical and regulatory information about some of the most virulent and prevalent biological agents.
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.
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.
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.
How do I find out about employer responsibilities and workers' rights?
Workers have a right to a safe workplace. The law requires employers to provide their employees with safe and healthful workplaces. The OSHA law also prohibits employers from retaliating against employees for exercising their rights under the law (including the right to raise a health and safety concern or report an injury). For more information see www.whistleblowers.gov or Workers' rights under the OSH Act.
OSHA can help answer questions or concerns from employers and workers. To reach your regional or area OSHA office, go to the OSHA Offices by State webpage or call 1-800-321-OSHA (6742).
Small business employers may contact OSHA's free and confidential On-site Consultation program to help determine whether there are hazards at their worksites and work with OSHA on correcting any identified hazards. Consultants in this program from state agencies or universities work with employers to identify workplace hazards, provide advice on compliance with OSHA standards, and assist in establishing injury and illness prevention programs. On-site Consultation services are separate from enforcement activities and do not result in penalties or citations. To contact OSHA's free consultation service, go to OSHA's On-site Consultation web page or call 1-800-321-OSHA (6742) and press number 4.
Workers may file a complaint to have OSHA inspect their workplace if they believe that their employer is not following OSHA standards or that there are serious hazards. Workers can file a complaint with OSHA by calling 1-800-321-OSHA (6742), online via eComplaint Form, or by printing the complaint form and mailing or faxing it to the local OSHA area office. Complaints that are signed by a worker are more likely to result in an inspection.
If you think your job is unsafe or if you have questions, contact OSHA at 1-800-321-OSHA (6742). Your contact will be kept confidential. We can help. For other valuable worker protection information, such as Workers' Rights, Employer Responsibilities, and other services OSHA offers, visit OSHA's Workers' page.
In Focus: Ebola
- Avian Influenza Protecting Poultry Workers at Risk (PDF). 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).
- Anthrax. OSHA eTool. Discusses anthrax topics, such as who is at risk for anthrax exposure and what to do in case of an anthrax threat.
- Legionnaires' Disease. OSHA eTool. Assists industrial hygienists in the assessment of worksites for potential Legionnaires' disease. It provides information on disease recognition, investigation procedures to identify probable water sources, and control strategies.
- NEW 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.