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Sheila Pantry Associates Ltd


Focus Archive

Risk Observatory: New biological threats in European working environment

December 2007

In its new report the European Risk Observatory identifies emerging biological risks that are most likely to affect workers in the European Union (EU). Farmers, healthcare workers or people in evolving industries such as waste treatment are particularly concerned. Communicable diseases such as SARS, avian flu or Dengue are of increasing concern. Despite existing European law, knowledge is still limited and in many workplaces biological risks are poorly assessed and prevented. The report emphasises the importance of taking a global and multidisciplinary approach involving occupational safety and health, public health, environmental protection and food safety.

"Biological risks often remain underestimated although they may be very harmful for EU workers in literally any sector", says Jukka Takala, Director of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work of which the European Risk Observatory (ERO) is an integral part. "The challenge is to identify them quickly as they appear and analyse the consequences they might have on people's health and to work out policies and procedures to minimise their spread." The ERO expert forecast identifies new and increasing biological risks related to occupational safety and stresses the importance of considering all collective responsibilities and means of control, both inside and outside the workplace.

Communicable diseases threaten EU workers

It is estimated that 320,000 workers worldwide die every year of communicable diseases caused by viral, bacterial, insect or animal related biological hazards. Although most fatalities occur in developing countries, some 5,000 workers fall victim in the EU. Women are more likely to be concerned than men as they typically work in occupations that involve more biohazards and exposure.

The most emerging risks relate to global epidemics with new contagious pathogens, e.g. severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS), avian flu and Ebola, and re-emerging ones such as cholera and yellow fever. Given the speed and volume of international traffic and trade, these substances may spread around the globe within a few hours and start a new pandemic.

Industries with highest risk

As many of these diseases jump the species barrier from animals to humans, workers in contact with livestock are particularly at risk. Other pathogens such as tuberculosis have become resistant to known drugs and can result in severe infections in healthcare workers.

Complex exposure situations are found in new industries such as waste treatment where workers come in contact with a variety of airborne micro organisms and organic compounds. Moulds can spread in any indoor workplace due to poorly maintained air-conditioning and can cause asthma and allergies.

Second report on emerging risks

The ERO report is the second of a series dedicated to emerging risks. The results of this forecast, together with the three complementary works on physical, chemical and psychosocial risks, are only the first steps in a process of debate and consolidation that forms part of the work programme of the Agency.

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work was set up by the European Union to help meet the information needs in the field of occupational safety and health. Based in Bilbao, Spain, the Agency aims to improve the lives of people at work by stimulating the flow of technical, scientific and economic information between all those involved in occupational safety and health issues

The European Risk Observatory was set up in 2005 as an integral part of the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work. Demographic changes and developments in the organisation of work and production methods are generating new types of risks to workers' safety and health that demand new solutions. The Risk Observatory aims to identify new and emerging risks and to promote early preventive action. It describes trends and underlying factors and anticipates changes in the working environment and their likely consequences to health and safety.

Download the reports on emerging risks free of charge

European Agency for Safety and Health at Work, Gran Vía 33, E-48009 Bilbao - Spain | Tel: + 34 94 479 4360 | Fax: + 34 94 479 4383 |