COVID-19 has shown that biohazards can threaten organisations in any sector. How are health and safety practices being developed to meet the challenge of future outbreaks?
For organisations operating in fields such as healthcare, food production and waste management, biohazards have always been high on the health and safety agenda. But, aside from managing the risk of legionella in water systems, for those in other sectors it’s the tangible safety threats – fires, falling objects and mechanical mishaps – that have traditionally taken precedence. COVID-19 has changed all that. Now we are confronted by a hazard that is all the more dangerous as it is microscopic and, unlike many chemical hazards, it can take weeks for the effects to become fully apparent.
It looks as if we’ll be living with coronavirus for some time. And it’s unlikely to be the only biohazard we will face. The chances are that other novel viruses will emerge, but organisations need to be more alert to existing biohazards, such as flu, norovirus and other seasonal bugs that can impact productivity.
As Michael Edwards, OSH content developer at IOSH, points out: ‘Organisations now need to change their mindsets and widen their focus to encompass biohazards. It’s no longer just about risks they can control internally; it’s also about external threats and influencing the workforce not to bring additional risks into the organisation.’
As we adjust to a ‘new normal’, companies such as ABB, a global engineering company working in the field of electrification, automation and robotics, are bedding in learning and new practices that will meet the challenges of future biohazards. ‘The bulk of our UK HSE team are from high-risk backgrounds, so to support our colleagues, we’ve applied human factors and behavioural-based approaches to biological hazards associated with COVID-19,’ says David Day, UK health, safety and environment manager at ABB.
‘It’s not just about making people aware with screens and signage, it’s about trying to understand the way people work. You need to look at how people interact and how they move around the workplace – it could be as simple as things like how they use kitchens and break-rooms, how they move around their workstations, or their route to the toilets and which washbasin they use.’
There have always been instances of viruses passing from animals to humans – in recent times these have included HIV, Ebola and avian flu. And after SARS and MERS, COVID-19 is the third coronavirus thought to have passed from bats to humans this century. Known as zoonotic viruses, these animal-derived pathogens are emerging more often because of increasing human encroachment on wildlife-rich habitats, while globalisation and population density in cities are instrumental in turning outbreaks into pandemics. It’s estimated that there are around 700,000 viruses circulating in animals, and scientists believe it’s only a matter of time before another jumps the species barrier. Work is going on around the world to create systems that will enable us to predict which wildlife viruses are most likely to spark dangerous pandemics and to develop preventative measures and treatments.
Biohazards previously thought to be under control are now posing increasing threats in many parts of the world.
‘Vaccine hesitancy’, a reluctance or refusal to vaccinate often fuelled by anti-vaccine propaganda, was named by the World Health Organization as one of the biggest threats to global health in 2019. It is resulting in the re-emergence of a number of vaccine-preventable diseases, such as polio and measles. In the UK, as in many other countries, coverage of the measles-mumps-rubella vaccine has fallen below 95%, the level required to maintain herd immunity.
Microbial resistance, or resistance to antibiotic or anti-viral medications, is driven by their overuse in humans, as well as in animals used for food and in the environment. This is causing a number of contagious diseases, such as TB, pneumonia and salmonella, to become harder to treat and control.
Climate change will also play a part, particularly in the case of vector-borne diseases such as malaria and dengue, which may spread to new areas as temperatures rise.
Biohazards at bay
Organisations also need to give some thought to how they will maintain biosecure measures in the longer term and avoid laxity creeping in.
Shurene Bishop Simon, director of Bishop Simon, a health, safety and biosafety consultancy, says that employers can play an important role in continuously reinforcing government safety messaging. ‘With COVID-secure measures, you’re asking employees to do a hard thing, and human beings respond to rewards so it will be beneficial to think of creative ways to incentivise them. For example, to get people to spend the recommended 20 seconds washing their hands, you could devise a competition asking employees to identify a 20-second song that could be used instead of Happy Birthday.
‘The point is to engage people on serious matters in a fun way so that it sticks. It worked for the British Heart Foundation when it used the Bee Gees’ Stayin’ Alive to help people perform CPR.’
Problems may arise when employers are offering minimum levels of sickness support, says Michael. ‘Some organisations make it difficult for people to say they’re ill and need to stay at home. They need to start focusing some of their resources on these areas. It might mean a higher outlay in terms of sickness absence, but if you only provide statutory sick pay, or in overseas operations perhaps none at all, how are you going to convince employees to stay at home if they have something that could infect the workforce? Organisations must build on their support for employees to minimise the risks to the business.’
The chances are that other novel viruses will emerge
Quarantine regulations for people returning from abroad seem likely to be in flux for some time, and this raises the question of how businesses can create a fair system for all employees. Will office-based workers be able to continue working from home and getting paid during their quarantine period while frontline workers are forced to use up more holiday or take unpaid leave?
Organisations can also work to improve the uptake of preventative measures, such as vaccines and malaria prophylaxis for employees working in areas with endemic disease. Flu vaccination is currently the most pressing issue. At the time of writing, ABB was in the process of deciding whether to offer free flu vaccines to employees in the form of vouchers, or to have a vaccine provider visiting workplaces. ‘I believe that people are more likely to take up the vaccine if you make it as easy as possible. We’re also putting out a very positive, evidence-based message about the benefits of the vaccine, explaining the benefits to the individual, the community and the NHS.’
Biohazards in Building: Construction Site Safety
- Bird droppings can lead to psittacosis
- Exposure to rat urine can cause Weil’s disease if it enters a cut or gets in the nose, mouth or eyes
- Contamination of the site with sewage or animal faeces can pass on E. coli or hepatitis A
- Undrained or contaminated water systems containing stagnant water can cause legionnaires’ disease.
Building strategies for the future
Fidelity International is a financial services organisation with more than 8000 employees in the UK, Europe, India and Asia-Pacific. ‘COVID-19 required us to review and define how to respond to events of this nature, resulting in the creation of our Contagious Illness Response Team [CIRT],’ explains Ben Clifford, associate director for global health, safety and sustainability. In response to the pandemic, the CIRT has developed into a wider, senior management-led governance structure, and a global steering committee. ‘It’s worked really well and enabled us to have a centralised approach to the procurement of masks and sanitiser, for example. We’ve called it “contagious illness response” as it’s wider than COVID. It’s how we are going to be managing biohazard threats moving forward.’
Regular drills and testing of procedures will take place to ensure the strategy remains fresh in colleagues’ minds. ‘We’ll set up fictional scenarios: for example, an outbreak of malaria in a region where one of our offices is based. It will involve getting that team together and going through the steps we need to take and making sure the key people are aware of what their roles are. It will be similar to doing a fire drill.’
It’s clear that collaboration between health and safety and teams such as HR and business continuity will be key in responding to future crises. ‘One of the things we’ve done best is having the cross-functional team in place,’ says Ben. ‘It’s been a massive part of it, and a real success for us.’ As he points out, with biohazards it’s vital to remain agile. Like so many organisations, he says, ‘we’re continuing to learn.’
- Minutes of meetings of UK committee the Scientific Advisory Group for Emergencies (SAGE) feature the latest thinking on COVID-19 and other biological risks. Access records of all meetings and guidance: bit.ly/SAGE-guidance
- Meetings of the New and Emerging Respiratory Virus Threats Advisory Group (NERVTAG) are likely to be of particular interest to OSH professionals: bit.ly/NERVTAG-meetings