The GESTIS Biological Agents Database – compact information for occupational safety and health protection

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Dr Thomas Smola, Dr Beatrice Spottke, Dr Roger Stamm, Amélia Veloso, Dr Matthias Rastetter, Dr Gisela Martens, Dr Anja Vomberg, Dr Harald Wellhäusser

Anyone using biological agents has to be aware of their hazard potential. The GESTIS Biological Agents Database contains a wealth of information ranging from the classification in risk groups through to occupational safety and health measures.

Biological agents such as microorganisms are omnipresent and in many cases useful as well. Without them we would not survive – for some of them form a protective film on our skin, while others are responsible for the working of our digestive system. So it is not surprising that microorganisms also occur and are put to use in the working environment, such as in the food and beverages industry (lactic acid bacteria, baking and brewing yeast). Other branches of industry also resort to microorganisms: bacteria, fungi and the like form the basic substances of biotechnology; the pharmaceutical industry uses them for the production of antibiotics; and biotechnologically produced enzymes are firmly established in the detergent and cleaning agent industry.  A large number of biological agents are also intentionally used or arise incidentally in science and research as well as in biotechnology and keeping of experimental animals. In the health service, veterinary medicine, agriculture and forestry, in cleaning and refurbishment activities, waste water and solid waste management, and in abattoirs, they can also be encountered – and risks may arise as well. For biological agents also include numerous bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites that are capable of causing infectious diseases and other health problems in humans. The biological agents arising at the workplace therefore have to be included in the risk assessment. The risk assessment is the central element of occupational safety and health and the basis for systematic and effective safety and health protection in the everyday working environment.

Pooling knowledge

Figure 1: GESTIS Biological Agents Database

Until now, the knowledge required for risk assessments and hence for dealing with hazards safely has been scattered among various media. The GESTIS Biological Agents Database now brings this knowledge together in a uniform structure, pools it and makes it available online from anywhere, around the clock (Fig. 1). Registration is not necessary. Access is free of charge.

The GESTIS Biological Agents Database is part of GESTIS (hazardous substance information system of the German Social Accident Insurance). It provides sound and reliable information on measures for maintaining the safety and protecting the health of employees. It supports employers with their risk assessment in connection with the implementation of the Ordinance on Safety and Health Protection at Workplaces involving Biological Agents or “Biological Agents Ordinance” for short. It is also available to the interested public.

For almost 15,000 biological agents, the GESTIS Biological Agents Database contains data on their classification in one of the four risk groups and the basic technical, organisational and personal protective measures during activities in laboratories, biotechnology and keeping of experimental animals. For selected biological agents of medical relevance or of relevance to occupational safety and health, datasheets are available containing extended information. These datasheets contain details of medical significance, the relevant sectors and activities, protective measures for specific pathogens, decontamination, first aid measures, preventive health care, morphology and physiology, natural distribution, occurrence, pathogenicity, disease, epidemiology, resistance and legal principles. It is also possible to Access links to reputable national and international science networks. The number of datasheets for biological agents containing this supplementary information is constantly increasing.

In addition, datasheets are issued not only on biological agents, but also on activities, such as datasheets for the waste management industry or agriculture and forestry which focus on the special features of activities in certain work areas. These datasheets list the technical, organisational and personal measures. Along with reference to the valid rules and regulations, there are also links to operational instructions for practitioners in various sectors and activities that in companies have to be adapted to specific circumstances in connection with the risk assessment.

Database content – detecting and preventing risks

The bacteria, viruses, fungi and parasites listed in the database are each classified in one of four risk groups. This classification reflects the severity of the disease caused, the risk of spread in the population and the options for treatment and prevention. According to the risk group definitions, biological agents in Risk Group 1 can be virtually eliminated as pathogens, while those in Risk Group 4 cause serious disease, spread rapidly and are difficult to treat; prevention is virtually impossible. Any toxic or sensitising properties of the biological agents are irrelevant to classification – what exclusively matters is the infection risk. While Directive 2000/54/EC of the European Parliament and the Council on the “protection of workers from risks related to exposure to biological agents at work” only lists in its Annex III a mere 380 biological agents with EC classifications, the biological agent Database contains almost 15,000 nationally classified biological agents.

Project partners

The GESTIS Biological Agents Database is a cooperation project of the German Social Accident Insurance Institution for the raw materials and chemical industry (BG RCI), the German Social Accident Insurance (DGUV) and the Federal Ministry for Labour and Social Affairs (BMAS). The project enjoys specialist assistance from the Committee for Biological Agents (ABAS).

Reputed scientists compile pathogen-related data and give them a user-friendly structure. Information from specific sectors transcending national rules and regulations is included in the datasheets in “non-specific” activities, e.g. in the waste water sector. The goal is to give users a rapid and informative overview so that they can deal with biological agents safely.

User guidance in the Biological Agents Database

Figure 2: Start screen of the GESTIS Biological Agents Database

The GESTIS Biological Agents Database is supervised by the Hazardous Substance Information Unit at the Institute for Occupational Safety and Health of DGUV (IFA). Thanks to intuitive user guidance, no special knowledge is necessary for use of the database (Fig. 2).

The GESTIS Biological Agents Database is being constantly extended and updated. It contains three different types of datasheet:

  1. Biological agent datasheets containing extended information
  2. Biological agent datasheets containing basic information
  3. Activity datasheets

Biological agent datasheets containing extended information

Figure 3: Detail of a biological agent datasheet containing extended information

On the basis of a list of priorities and assuming a sufficient body of data, biological agents of special interest to professionals and the public are published with extended information by experts in the particular field. These biological agent datasheets contain the following chapters:

  • Name, category, risk group etc.
  • Medical significance
  • Routes of transmission
  • Sector
  • Activities
  • Measures of occupational safety and health (protective measures, deactivation, decontamination, immediate measures, first aid measures, occupational health care)
  • Morphology and physiology
  • Occurrence, natural habitat
  • Pathogenicity
  • Disease (including symptoms, treatment, prophylaxis)
  • Epidemiology
  • Resistance, tenacity
  • Regulations (including laws, ordinances, Technical Rules for Biological Agents)
  • Further links on the biological agent
  • Literature.

In the alphabetical selection lists and in the hit lists after a search, the biological agent datasheets containing extended information are marked with the “green page” symbol.

The search in the biological agent database can be limited to biological agent datasheets containing extended information if in the search mask the box “Only datasheets containing extended information” is ticked.

Biological agent datasheets containing basic information

Figure 4: Detail of a biological agent datasheet containing basic information

The biological agent database contains so-called basic information on almost 15,000 biological agents. In addition to their classification in risk groups, it also contains basic occupational safety and health measures for “specific” activities with biological agents in laboratories, with experimental animals and in biotechnology. If available, the basic datasheets also include links to relevant information on the biological agent in question.

For biological agents with high priority, these datasheets are developed further by experts to yield biological agent datasheets containing extended information.

Biological agent datasheets containing basic information are marked in the alphabetical selection lists and in the hit lists after a search with the “grey page” symbol.

Activity datasheets

Figure 5: Search mask of the GESTIS Biological Agents Database

During many activities, there is unintentional contact with biological agents, although it is often not known which biological agents are actually present. The Biological Agents Ordinance terms such activities as “non-specific activities”. Examples of these are activities in the waste industry, waste water treatment, agriculture and forestry, the health service and during the cleaning and refurbishment of buildings. If a risk assessment has to be performed for such activities, it is not usually sufficient to examine the properties of the biological agent. Suitable activity datasheets are gradually being issued in the biological agents database for such activities.

These activity datasheets contain the following information:

  • Biological agents possibly arising during these activities, their routes of transmission and possible risks
  • Measures for occupational safety and health
  • Regulations and links to further information.

Activity datasheets can be found by entering a search term (e.g. waste) in the search field “Activities” in the search mask. All the activity datasheets so far issued are retrieved if an asterisk * is entered in the search field.

The biological agent or activity datasheets of relevance can be either selected from an alphabetical list or searched with the aid of various filters. The alphabetical list is always available on the left-hand edge of the screen (see Fig. 2).

Clicking on a letter opens the list of biological agents starting with this letter. Since there are very large numbers of biological agents under certain letters, alphabetical word ranges (e.g. a – al, am – az) can also be opened by clicking on them.

Simple searches in the biological agents database are best performed using the quick search bar at the top edge of the screen (see Fig. 2). There it is possible to search for the biological agent’s name, biological agent category (e.g. bacterium, parasite …), document number and even for sectors and activities in which the biological agent arises. The search is made easier by the fact that, when the 2nd letter is entered, a list appears containing all the terms applicable to the current input.

For more advanced searches, a special search mask is provided (Fig. 5), which also permits the combination of different search terms.

It should not remain unmentioned that in the field Full text any term can be searched for in the entire database. Help texts are available for more detailed information on the various searches; these can be displayed by clicking on the question-mark next to the input field in question.

For suggestions and queries on the content of the datasheets or on the functions of the database, an electronic “guestbook” is available: