Micro-organisms are bacteria and viruses (more commonly known as germs), fungi or parasites. In most workplaces, the risk of catching an infection, such as a cold or flu, is no higher than in any other public place and you do not have to take any action.
However, some people who work with animals, or provide care for people, or who clean up or handle waste materials, can be exposed to harmful micro-organisms.
These can cause an infection if they are breathed in, swallowed, or if they penetrate the skin, and can include some very serious illnesses. Some may in turn cause an allergic reaction or are toxic (they produce a poison).
What do I have to do?
Your risk assessment must consider how workers may be exposed to micro-organisms (or to blood or bodily fluids, animals or animal products or waste materials which are known to carry micro-organisms). In general, unless it has been treated, you should assume that human/animal waste materials, including sewage, may contain harmful micro-organisms that could cause an infection.
People who work outdoors should take precautions if they are working near stagnant water, which can carry harmful micro-organisms because of contamination.
You should find out about the common types of infection that are a risk for your relevant work activity (and how your employees or others might be exposed), and decide whether you are doing enough to prevent this from happening.
The good news is that controlling the risk of infection is relatively straightforward – usually simple, good personal hygiene measures are sufficient. All workers must have access to clean, adequate washing facilities. Important control measures include:
- appropriate washable/disposable clothing
- personal protective equipment (eg impervious gloves) and/or waterproof covering for cuts and abrasions
- the right containers and safe systems of work for handling waste, including disposal of contaminated sharps (such as needles)
- effective immunisations may be available. For example, hepatitis B vaccination is advisable if the risk arises from care work with people which might involve exposure to blood/bodily fluids
You also need to provide information and training for employees and check safe systems of work are being followed, as above.