Employer obligation to protect against blood-borne viruses

Clean Stream Technologies

By Scott Whittaker, General Manager, Clean Stream Technologies
Monday, 22 August, 2022

Employer obligation to protect against blood-borne viruses

Major public health emergencies, such as COVID and the re-emergence of influenza, have pushed the workplace dangers of highly transmissible blood-borne diseases off the front page in recent times — but they haven’t gone away.

In fact, there are now more than 230,000 people in Australia estimated to be living with chronic Hepatitis B, for example, according to the most recent figures from the Doherty Institute. These show incidence of the disease has risen to represent 0.90% of the population.

HIV also remains a threat, with the rate of infection remaining stubbornly near the levels of 10 years ago, according to research from the Kirby Institute. Such diseases are the tip of the iceberg of infections that can be spread in workplaces, public spaces and accident situations involving bleeding, saliva, vomit, urine, faeces and cytotoxic drugs, among others.

All employers should revisit their legal obligations to their workforces under the National Code of Practice for the Control of Work-related Exposure to Hepatitis and HIV (Blood-borne) Viruses [NOHSC:2010(2003)]. The purpose of this code is to minimise the risk of infection resulting from work-related exposure to Hepatitis B virus (HBV), Hepatitis C virus (HCV) and human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

Who is at risk?

There are some industries whose workforces are most obviously at risk, including hospitals and health care; aged care; dental and medical practices; emergency service responders, including police and ambulance; defence; and all workplaces where direct contact with affected people may be a daily risk.

But risk certainly doesn’t stop there. A huge number of organisations and supply chains must manage the risk of debilitating, highly transmissible and sometimes fatal ailments being spread unwittingly. These include food and beverage and agricultural processors and distributors, retailers, hospitality venues (including pubs, clubs and restaurants), schools and tertiary institutions, and the transport networks which are so important during these COVID times.

Other economically essential industries where people frequently work in close contact with each other include manufacturing, high-technology communication and automation centres vital to production, mining and resources, energy and water utilities, and waste management. Workers, visitors and clients may be placed at risk due to spills, and a quick response is needed where blood-borne pathogens (including viruses and bacteria) pose a serious risk to health and safety.

Reducing the danger of spills

Spills are a hazard that employers want to clean up quickly. Quite apart from their unsightly appearance, or foul smell, they can cause a slip hazard on hard floors, adding to workplace and public space liability.

WorkCover now requires all employers to have controls in place for the handling of body fluid spills. The scope of the obligations is all-encompassing and relates both to workers and non-workers on-site, employees, visitors and customers. To help managers and safety officers understand their obligations, many state and federal groups have been running seminars specifically on this subject.

ZeoMed spill kits can also help to provide rapid response to blood-borne biohazards with the potential to spread disease within areas and operations (many of which need readily applied solutions because their resources are stretched because they are already coping with COVID and flu).

Kits can be configured to the needs of particular applications:

  • Body fluid spill kit (designed for in-field use with portable first aid kits for quick access by employees).
  • Biohazard spill kit (ideal for corporate, hospitality and public domains, located near first aid stations or cleaning trolleys).
  • Cytotoxic body fluid spill kit (provides additional protection for clean-up of body fluids from patients who have been treated with cytotoxic drugs).
  • Laboratory spill kit (configured for laboratory and similar applications where spills may be body fluid or other liquids, such as chemicals).
  • Multipurpose spill kit (for venues such as supermarkets, variety stores, shopping centres, restaurants, hospitality and transport terminals where staff or the public may be at risk from biohazard and chemical hazards as well as slip and fall hazards).
  • Sharps kit (ideal for safely disposing of needles and syringes).

These kits have been designed to comply with Department of Health regulations in the handling of blood-borne pathogens in the workplace. They have also been developed in consultation with WorkCover and exceed the minimum legal requirements of their policies.

Legal requirements

The code stipulates that employers must have in place controls or systems that meet or exceed the minimum legal requirements of the code of practice for protecting workers and non-workers from infection from blood-borne virus in the workplace.

What is a blood-borne pathogen?

Examples of blood-borne pathogens that may be transmitted include:

  • Hepatitis B (HBV): a virus that causes inflammation of the liver and liver disease. Like the conditions following, better treatments are becoming available, but there are no cures.
  • Hepatitis C (HCV): a slow-acting virus that causes inflammation of the liver and liver disease.
  • Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV): a human retrovirus that leads to (AIDS).

Sources of infection of HBV, HCV and HIV include blood and body fluids/substances from persons who are infected with the viruses. Body fluids are defined as blood, vomit, faeces or urine.

Employers are directly responsible

This code is intended chiefly for use by primary duty holders — that is, employers, self-employed and other controllers of workplaces who owe a duty of care to workers.

Their controls must contain the following:

Protective clothing (PPE)
  • Workers involved in cleaning must wear protective clothing including gloves, face and eye shields, waterproof apron to prevent contamination of clothing.
Spill containment
  • Confine and contain the spill.
  • Cover the spill with paper towels or absorbent granules, depending on the size of the spill, to absorb the bulk of the blood or body fluid/substance.
Spill management
  • Treat debris as clinical waste. Must be in sealed, leakproof yellow bag with biohazard symbol.
  • Contaminated areas should be cleaned thoroughly with warm water and neutral detergent.

Image credit: iStock.com/Arpon Pongkasetkam

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