Laboratory workers who come into contact with COVID-19

Under the COSHH Regulations, employers must minimise the risk to laboratory staff working with biological agents which cause COVID-19.

There is guidance from the UK Health Security Agency on safe handling and processing of COVID-19 for samples in laboratories.

People who work in microbiology laboratories and related disciplines are at risk from exposure to biological agents. Some will work with biological agents themselves, eg by culturing them.

Others will work with material, which is likely to contain micro-organisms although the micro-organisms are not actually being grown, eg blood typing in a haematology laboratory.

In addition to the general duties of COSHH, there are additional provisions in Schedule 3 of the regulations, which apply, primarily, to laboratory and large-scale work with biological agents. The choice of control measures in laboratories is largely based on the hazard group of the biological agent that is being used (or that may be present). Biological agents are classified into one of four hazard groups from 1 (the lowest) to 4 (highest, eg Ebola) based on their ability to infect healthy adults. The classification is set out in the Approved List of Biological Agents.

There are about 230,000 people who work in biomedical sciences - with an estimated 12,500 scientists working in NHS laboratories. Research carried out for HSE in 1994/5 estimated that infection rates are about 16 per 100 000 person years, with the majority of these being caused by Hazard Group 2 biological agents in diagnostic laboratories.

In addition to using specific control measures, those working with biological agents also need to notify HSE the first time that agents in HG2, HG3 and HG4 are used at a particular premises. Notification is also required of the subsequent use of certain agents (ie when agents in hazard groups 3 and 4 and those agents in hazard group 2 that are listed in Part V of Schedule 3 of COSHH are used for the first time).

Much of the guidance that is relevant to laboratory work is produced by the Advisory Committee on Dangerous Pathogens (ACDP). There is also guidance available from other HSC advisory committees and specific regulations for those working with genetically modified organisms.

ACDP also issue a free publication, the Biological Agents Bulletin - available on the HSE Website or by direct email - which covers laboratory issues as well as new information about biological agents in general.

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Updated 2022-05-23