Biological Safety Management FAQs

Below is a list of frequently asked questions relating to biological safety management.

Please scroll down the list to locate the FAQ you need.

Biological safety management - autoclaves

The purpose of these FAQs is to provide information and guidance to workers and supervisors when working with autoclaves. This information should be read in conjunction with the Biological Safety Management chapter of the HSW Handbook.

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  • What is an autoclave?

    Pressure steam sterilisers (autoclaves) are used in laboratories both for sterilisation of media and equipment required for the culture of microorganisms, and for sterilisation of discarded cultures and waste materials.  Pressure steam sterilisers operate at high pressures and temperatures, and appropriate measures must be taken for to ensure the safety of workers.

    Autoclaves utilise moist heat, in the form of saturated steam under pressure, to destroy microbial life.  Steam sterilisation is the most reliable sterilisation method for the majority of situations.

    The autoclave is used to sterilise:

    • reusable equipment after it has been disinfected and washed;
    • biological waste before disposal.
  • What contributes to the effectiveness of an autoclave?

    The following elements all contribute to autoclave effectiveness.

    • Temperature: The temperature inside the autoclave must be at least 121°C.
    • Time: The time required for sterilisation varies, but it will never be less than 30 minutes. The time is measured from the point at which the temperature of the material to be sterilised reaches the required autoclaving temperature - the tighter the autoclave is packed, the longer it will take for the material in the centre of the load to reach the temperature required.
    • Contact: Saturated steam must contact all areas of the load.  Sterilisation will fail if:
      • air pockets or inadequate steam supply prevent steam saturation; or
      • the load exceeds the capacity of the autoclave so that steam cannot contact all areas of the load.

    Autoclaves must be used properly to effect successful steam sterilisation.

  • What are the general guidelines for ensuring autoclave effectiveness?

    There are a number of general guidelines that should be followed when using autoclaves to ensure effective sterilisation.

    • Indicators: Indicators, such as autoclave tape, indicate with a visible colour change that they have been through the autoclave process.  At the end of the autoclave cycle, indicators should be checked to ensure they have changed colour.
    • Biological indicators: There are commercially available test kits that use bacterial spores to test the autoclave efficiency. Autoclaves should be tested using biological indicators at regular intervals in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions, and results recorded.
    • Overfilling:
      • Steam and heat cannot easily penetrate a densely packed autoclave bag.  If an autoclave is overfilled the outer contents of the bag will be sterilised, but the innermost part will be unaffected.
      • An over packed autoclave chamber does not allow efficient steam distribution, and so sterilisation efficiencies will be reduced.
    • Monitoring: Autoclave temperature, pressure and cycle duration time should be monitored during each cycle. (Some autoclaves have charts that trend the temperatures and pressures inside the autoclave chamber throughout each cycle).
    • Maintenance: Autoclaves must be covered by a regular preventative maintenance program that is performed by a technician certified by the manufacturer.
  • What do I need to know about autoclave bags?

    Most items to be autoclaved are packed into autoclave bags, which come in a variety of types and sizes.

    Paper autoclave bags

    • Paper autoclave bags are commonly used when autoclaving reusable equipment after it has been disinfected and washed.
    • Paper autoclave bags should be closed by folding down and taping the open end (as they are permeable to steam).

    Plastic autoclave bags

    • Plastic biohazard bags are commonly used when autoclaving biological waste before disposal.
    • Autoclave bags should be left partially open, to allow steam to penetrate the bag.
    • Where possible, water should be added to autoclave bags to facilitate saturated steam contact. However, water should not be added if by doing so there is a chance that biohazardous materials may splash out of the bag
    • Bags should be loosely packed and no more than ¾ full.
  • What do I need to know when autoclaving without an autoclave bag?

    Some reusable equipment is autoclaved without autoclave bags, and in this instance the following guidelines should be followed.

    • Tubular equipment such as pipettes and equipment such as conical flasks should be plugged with a wad of cotton wool, so that the interior of the equipment remains sterile after autoclaving.
    • Small bottles and tubes should be loaded in open mesh baskets.
    • Lids or caps should be loosened.
    • Instruments such as forceps can be wrapped in aluminium foil.
  • What safety considerations should I implement when using an autoclave?

    Autoclaves must be used in accordance with the manufacturer’s instructions. Safety precautions that should be followed when using autoclaves include the following.

    • Wear personal protective equipment, including heat-resistant gloves, safety glasses and a laboratory coat when operating an autoclave.
    • If using a large autoclave consider using a trolley for loading & unloading items into the autoclave.
    • Be careful when opening the autoclave door.  Opening the autoclave door too quickly can result in glassware breakage and steam burns.  Check that the pressure is close to zero before opening the door.
    • Allow steam to escape from the autoclave before attempting to remove the contents of the autoclave.
    • Be careful of hot temperatures when handling autoclaved equipment and any liquids.
    • Never autoclave sealed containers - this could cause an explosion inside the autoclave.  Large bottles with narrow necks can simulate sealed containers if filled with too much liquid.
    • Never autoclave solvents, volatile or corrosive chemicals, or any radioactive materials.
    • If there is a spill inside an autoclave, allow the autoclave to cool before attempting to clean up the spill.
    • If glass breaks in the autoclave use tongs, forceps or other suitable tools to clear it away. Do not use bare or gloved hands to pick up broken glassware.
    • Do not put sharp or pointed contaminated objects into an autoclave bag, as this could cause a needle stick injury. Instead, place sharp or pointed objects in an appropriate rigid sharps disposal container.
    • Be careful when handling an autoclave bag full of infectious waste, in case sharp objects have been inadvertently placed in the bag.
    • Never lift an autoclave bag from the bottom: instead handle it from the top.
    • Ensure any equipment containing liquids is no more than ¾ full when placing into the autoclave. This will allow for heat expansion and decrease the likelihood of a pressure-induced breakage.
  • What are the common pressures and times for autoclave?

    The time and pressure depend on the contents of the run so it is important not to mix items/media with greatly different temperature ranges in the same run.

    Temp.( 0C) Pressure(psi) Time (minutes) Exhaust Applications
    121 15 15 Slow Liquids/agar
    121 15 20 Slow Large volumes of liquid/agar
    121 15 20 Fast Solid waste (no liquids)
    109 5 45 Slow Heat sensitive media
    115 10 15 Slow Heat sensitive media
    118 12 10 Slow Heat sensitive media
    134 30 4 Fast Glass/equipment

Biological safety management - biological hazard management

The purpose of these FAQs is to provide information and guidance to workers and supervisors on specific information related to biological hazard management.  The FAQs should be read in conjunction with the Biological Safety Management chapter and Hazard Management chapter of the HSW Handbook.

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  • How do I identify and classify biological hazards?

    When identifying the hazards consider the whole task from setting up, conducting the activity, cleaning up and disposal.  Also consider the hazards associated with a failure in the process (e.g. a bottle breaks while transporting).

    • Refer to AS/NZS 2243.3 2010 Safety in Laboratories Part 3 Microbiological safety and containment for examples of microorganisms according to risk groups 2, 3 and 4 (note that the higher the level of risk the higher the required containment level).
    • In addition the Public Health Agency of Canada has produced a database of safety data sheet (SDS) for people working with infectious microorganisms.  These SDSs contain health hazard information such as infectious dose, viability (including decontamination), medical information, laboratory hazards, recommended precautions, handling information and spill procedures.  The database is located here.

    Please note: All blood, blood products, other body fluids and associated materials should be regarded as infectious and at all times handled as if they were infected with blood-borne pathogens.

  • What factors need to be considered when assessing hazards associated with biological materials?

    A task-based risk assessment is preferred when using biological materials as it takes into account the process and the workplace, which is important when considering how a person is exposed.  The risk assessment must be documented and kept in a place where it can be retrieved when requested.

    Consider the following factors when assessing the risks:

    • frequency of contact with biological material;
    • all possible transmission routes;
    • factors contributing to exposure;
    • workplace layout and its contribution to risk;
    • decontamination and waste management practices and their contribution to risk;
    • the level of training required to perform the task safely;
    • suitability of equipment for tasks;
    • available control measures; and
    • contingency requirements.

    Follow the process in the Hazard Management chapter of the HSW Handbook.

  • What control measures are relevant for biological hazards?

    Where a risk assessment has identified there is a risk to health arising from work with biological material, it is necessary for the area concerned to minimise the risk by controlling exposure.  Refer to the Hazard Management chapter of the HSW Handbook.

    See AS/NZS 2243.3 2010 Safety in Laboratories Part 3 Microbiological safety and containment for information on work practices for the Physical Containment requirements of the laboratory.

    Below are some brief examples of control measures that could be implemented.

    RISK CONTROL MEASURES (Biological examples)

    Hierarchy of control Examples of biological control measures
    Level 1 Elimination
    • Is there a safer process, which eliminates the need to use such hazardous biological material?
    Level 2 Substitution
    • Is there another biological material which is a safer alternative? e.g substitute non-screened with screened blood products.
    • Is there a safer alternative for fixing or preserving specimens?
      e.g. formalin substituted with Histochoice or Carosafe.
      Isolation/engineering
    • Use a biological safety cabinet when there is a significant risk of aerosols being produced (see question 4 of this information sheet for general information on Laminar Flow and Biosafety Cabinets).
      • A laminar flow does not provide operator protection and should only be used for material in Risk Group (RG) 1.
      • A biosafety cabinet class 1 should be used for material in Risk Group (RG) 2.
      • A biosafety cabinet class 2 should be used for material in Risk Group (RG) 2 or 3.
      • A biosafety cabinet class 3 should be used for material in Risk Group (RG) 4.
    • Centrifuges withsealed rotors or safety cups for spinning unscreened materials, large volumes or high concentrations of infectious material.
    • Mechanical pipetting devices (see question 5 of this information sheet for more information on pipettes).
    • Autoclaves (see Information Sheet Autoclaves)
    • Immunisation (see Immunisation/Vaccination) refer to the Information sheet Vaccinations.
    Level 3 Administrative
    • Provision of information, training and instruction.
    • Safe Operating Procedures, work practices relating to the physical containment requirements of the lab such as not re-sheathing needles after use or using Standard Precautions when handling diagnostic samples or patients.
    • Emergency and waste management plans.
    • Laboratory and after hours rules.
    Level 4 Personal Protective Equipment
    • Gowns, gloves, safety glasses, face shields, closed footwear etc. (Please note: contact lenses are NOT a form of eye protection. For more information refer to the Information Sheet Personal Protective Equipment
  • What general information should I consider when working with laminar flow cabinets and bio-safety cabinets and controlling biological hazards?

    Laminar flow cabinets (clean benches)

    These are better referred to as clean benches and are only for the handling of low risk microorganisms or for providing a clean environment for manipulating solutions.  Air that has passed through a high efficiency particulate air (HEPA) filter is passed over the work area and blown at the operator.  Hence they do not offer any operator protection.

    Biosafety cabinets

    All of these cabinets provide operator protection as air from the room is drawn into them and then filtered through a HEPA filter before being discharged back into the room.
    Class I cabinets do not provide any sample protection as the room air passes from the room then over the sample before filtration.  Class II and Class III cabinets provide both operator and sample protection.  These cabinets provide a form of primary barrier that operates by limiting the spread of aerosols away from the source of infection.

    UV lamps

    The biosafety cabinet may be fitted with germicidal ultraviolet (UV) lamps in the work zone.  UV can be a useful adjunct to surface cleaning procedures, but should not be seen as a replacement for good cleaning technique.  Exposure to UV radiation may cause damage and sunburn.  Ensure appropriate controls are in place to avoid exposure.

  • What general information should I consider when working with pipettes and controlling biological hazards?

    Preventing injuries:

    • Mechanical or electronic pipettors must be used for all pipetting tasks; never pipette by mouth.
    • Because pipette tips can pierce a biohazard bag, they should be treated as sharps and disposed of in a sharps container.

    Preventing aerosol production:

    The action of pipetting can form aerosols:

    • Pipette slowly, particularly when using pipettes for mixing, to avoid aspirating aerosol or liquid into the pipette body.
    • Where aerosol transmission is a risk, carry out pipetting operations in a biosafety cabinet.

    Preventing contamination:

    • Filtered tips or filter plugs may be required to avoid sample cross-contamination.
    • Avoid bringing the body of the pipette into contact with the vessel you're pipetting from.
    • Spray or wipe the body of the pipette over with disinfectant after use and store it upright.
    • If infectious liquids are aspirated into the pipettor, do not continue to use the unit. Disassemble the unit in a biosafety cabinet (wearing gloves) and decontaminate the components by soaking in disinfectant solution.
  • What are Standard Precautions and how do they assist in controlling biological hazards?

    Standard Precautions’ are the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) adopted term to define appropriate work practices, based on modules of transmission of infectious agents. These precautions are based on the principle that all blood and body substances are potentially infectious. This principle is applied universally to all patients, regardless of their infectious status or perceived risk.

    They include:

    • hygienic practices, particularly washing and drying hands before and after patient contact;
    • use of protective barriers when necessary, which may include gloves, gowns, plastic aprons, masks, eye shields or goggles;
    • appropriate handling and disposal of sharps and other contaminated or clinical waste;
    • use of aseptic technique; and
    • use of environmental controls.
  • Where can I go for further information about Biological Hazard Management?

    If you require further information, please contact your local HSW Team.

Biological safety management - vaccinations

The purpose of these FAQs is to provide information and guidance to workers and supervisors on vaccinations. This information should be read in conjunction with the Biological Safety Management chapter of the HSW Handbook.

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Biological safety management - working with animals

The purpose of these FAQs is to provide information and guidance to workers and supervisors when working with animals. The FAQs should be read in conjunction with the Biological Safety Management chapter of the HSW Handbook.

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  • What are the legislative requirements when working with animals?

    Animal work should comply with the Australian Code of Practice for the Care and Use of Animals for Scientific Purposes; or the Veterinary Practice Act 2003 (SA) and Regulations 2017 (SA).

    All work on infected animals should be carried out under the physical containment conditions equivalent to the risk group of the microorganisms present (refer to AS/NZS 2243.3: 2010 Safety in Laboratories Part 3 Microbiological safety and containment).

  • What hazards can I be exposed to when working with animals?

    The hazards associated with handling animals can be loosely placed in three major categories:

    1. Physical injuries occur from manual handling, kicks, bites and scratches.   Any injuries should be reported as soon as practicable to your supervisor.  Medical advice may be needed if an infected animal inflicted the injury.
    2. Zoonotic diseases are diseases that can be transmitted from animals to humans.   Animal tissues as well as live animals can potentially transmit zoonotic diseases.
    3. Allergic reactions associated with breathing or coming into contact with animal dander or body fluids or other allergens.
  • How can I prevent or lower the risks when working with animals?

    Physical injuries can be prevented by using appropriate animal handling techniques such as those taught by qualified vets, Laboratory Animal Services or other proficient or competent individuals.  When handling laboratory animals, gloves should be worn, adequate washing facilities should be provided and relevant immunisations is strongly recommended.

    Whilst Standard Precautions (see question 6) come from the health profession, they can also help to prevent Zoonotic diseases. The principles include:

    • hygienic practices, particularly washing and drying hands before and after animal contact;
    • use of protective barriers when necessary, which may include gloves, gowns, plastic aprons, masks, eye shields or goggles;
    • appropriate handling and disposal of sharps and other contaminated or clinical waste; and
    • appropriate reprocessing of reusable equipment and instruments.

    Allergic reactions can be controlled by reducing skin contact with animal products such as dander, serum and urine. Consider the use of gloves, lab coats, and/or approved particulate respirators with face shields.

    General
    These include not eating, drinking, or applying cosmetics or contact lenses around animals or animal care areas, wearing gloves when handling animals or their tissues, taking care not to accidentally rub the face with contaminated hands or gloves, and hand washing after each animal contact.

  • What other information should I know when working with animals?

    All post mortems on infected animals should be carried out under the physical containment conditions equivalent to the risk group of the microorganisms present. See AS/NZS 2242.3 2010 Safety in Laboratories Part 3 Microbiological safety and containment Section 6 for details).

    During dissections and post-mortem examinations, gloves, aprons (preferably disposable) and safety glasses or goggles should be worn.  It may be also necessary to consider respiratory protection.

    Penetration of organisms through the skin, especially from accidental self-inoculation and contact with ecto-parasites such as fleas (that live on the outside of a host) are a relatively common source of exposure.  Workers can protect themselves against accidental self-inoculation by, substituting manually operated pipettes for needles and syringes, allowing enough time to give injections properly, anaesthetising animals prior to inoculation with infectious agents, and using more than one person to inoculate animals.

    In the event that a person becomes ill with a fever or some other sign of infection, it is important that they let their treating doctor know that they work with animals. Report the incident in accordance with the Incident Reporting and Investigation Handbook Chapter.

  • How do I manage the disposal of animal carcasses/tissue, sharps and other waste?

    See HSW Handbook Chapter Biological Safety Management Appendix E Waste Disposal for information on the disposal of animal carcasses/tissue as well as sharps and other relevant waste.

  • What are Standard Precautions?

    Standard Precautions are the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) adopted term to define appropriate work practices, based on modules of transmission of infectious agents. These precautions are based on the principle that all blood and body substances are potentially infectious. This principle is applied universally to all patients, regardless of their infectious status or perceived risk.

    They include:

    • hygienic practices, particularly washing and drying hands before and after patient contact;
    • use of protective barriers when necessary, which may include gloves, gowns, plastic aprons, masks, eye shields or goggles;
    • appropriate handling and disposal of sharps and other contaminated or clinical waste;
    • use of aseptic technique; and
    • use of environmental controls.
  • What if I need further information on working with animals and biological safety management?

    If you require further information, please contact your local HSW team.

Biological safety management - working with human research subjects and patients

The purpose of these FAQs is to provide information and guidance to workers and supervisors on biological issues when working with human research subjects and patients, and should be read in conjunction with the Biological Safety Management chapter of the HSW Handbook.

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  • What are the basic biological issues when working with human research subjects and patients?

    Workers may be at risk during the course of their duties and when interacting with human research subjects or patients, due to the possibility of infectious agents being present in the workplace.

    Microorganisms are easily transferred by contact with unwashed hands, soiled equipment or contact with blood and other bodily substances.  Workers should assume that all blood and other body substances are potential sources of infection.  Contaminated skin penetrating equipment (sharps) can transmit these blood-borne viruses to workers who may accidentally pierce themselves. Unhygienic practices and procedures may also transmit other skin and mucous membrane infections e.g. herpes simplex virus and fungal infections such as ringworm or tinea, which are spread by direct skin contact or from contaminated surfaces.

  • How do I minimise the risk of infection when working with human research subjects and patients?

    To minimise the risk of infection a control program should be implemented.  An infection control program has the following components:

    1. Identification of hazards in accordance with the Hazard Management Handbook Chapter.
    2. Identify who is at risk and from what.
    3. Implement effective work practices and procedures including the use of Standard Precautions to minimise the risk (see Q3).
  • What are standard precautions when working with human research subjects and patients?

    ‘Standard Precautions’ are the National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) adopted term to define appropriate work practices, based on modules of transmission of infectious agents.  These precautions are based on the principle that all blood and body substances are potentially infectious.  This principle is applied universally to all patients, regardless of their infectious status or perceived risk.

    They include:

    • hygienic practices, particularly washing and drying hands before and after patient contact;
    • use of protective barriers when necessary, which may include gloves, gowns, plastic aprons, masks, eye shields or goggles;
    • appropriate handling and disposal of sharps and other contaminated or clinical waste;
    • use of aseptic technique; and
    • use of environmental controls.
  • What personal hygiene is important when working with human research subjects and patients?

    Hand washing

    Why wash your hands?
    Hand washing is generally considered to be the most important measure in preventing the spread of infection. Hand washing protects both the human research subjects, patients and workers/students.

    When should hand washing be done?

    • Before and after contact with each human research subject or patient.
    • Where multiple procedures are performed on a human research subject or patient, wash hands before and after each procedure.
    • Before resuming a procedure if interrupted.
    • Immediately prior to putting on disposable gloves.
    • Immediately after removing disposable gloves for any reason.
    • After touching the nose, mouth or handling a nasal tissue or handkerchief.
    • Before and after eating or drinking.
    • After going to the toilet.
    • After contact with blood or other body fluids.

    For how long?

    • For routine hand washing, hands should be washed all over with soap for at least 10 to 15 seconds.
    • Before commencing an aseptic procedure, hands should be should be washed all over with soap for at least 1 minute.

    How?

    • Wet hands thoroughly preferably with warm running water and lather with a mild soap. A liquid soap is preferable, although bar soap can be used if kept dry and in good condition.
    • Liquid soap dispensers also need to be maintained by regularly washing and drying all reusable parts. Soap helps remove grease, dirt and microorganisms. Warm water helps remove grease from hands. NOTE: An antimicrobial soap is not necessary for routine handwashing.
    • Pay special attention to the backs of hands, wrists and spaces between fingers.
    • Rinse hands thoroughly under running water.
    • Thoroughly dry the hands on a single-use towel or in another way that is not likely to transfer microorganisms to the hands (e.g. hot air hand dryer). The dryness of hands and fingertips is related to the transfer of bacteria – that is, the drier the hands the less likely the hands are to transfer bacteria.
    • Turn off the tap with the used towel if hands-free taps are not available.
    • Alcohol-based hand rubs or gels offer a practical and acceptable alternative to hand washing and can be used provided hands are not dirty. The hand rub or gel must come into contact with all surfaces of the hand and the hands rubbed together until the solution has evaporated.

    Using gloves

    • Gloves must be worn when it is likely that hands will be contaminated with blood or other body fluids, or come into contact with mucous membranes.
    • Single-use gloves are to be worn for skin penetration procedures.  They act as a physical barrier to protect the wearer’s hands from contamination and to prevent the transfer of microorganisms.
    • Single-use gloves are not sterile unless labelled as such and sealed.
    • The use of single-use gloves does not substitute, or eliminate the need for hand washing.  Hands must be washed thoroughly before putting on gloves and again following glove removal.
    • Gloves must be removed and disposed of if the operator leaves the patient for any reason.  Hands must be washed and new gloves must be put on before resuming the procedure, or before starting a new procedure on the same person to prevent cross contamination.  Gloves must not be washed or re-used.
    • Note that some people are allergic to latex gloves.  If a worker develops a rash or skin condition it is recommended that they consult a medical practitioner.  Single-use gloves are also available made of other materials, e.g. neoprene or nitrile.
  • What design features should the work area have when working with human research subjects and patients?

    Work areas should:

    • be well lit and well ventilated;
    • have adequate storage space for processing equipment and materials;
    • have sufficient bench space to ensure the separation of clean and dirty equipment;
    • facilitate a workflow pattern to prevent recontamination of processed equipment;
    • have equipment positioned and stored safely to minimise the risk of injury.

    In the treatment and processing of biological materials all floors, floor coverings, walls, ceilings, shelves, fittings and other furniture should be constructed of materials suitable for the procedures undertaken and should be smooth, impermeable and easily cleaned.

    It is important that flooring should be of a colour and type that allows for easy identification and removal of sharps should they be dropped.  As a general rule carpets are not recommended, however, if carpet already exists in treatment areas where spillage of blood can be expected to be minimal it may be acceptable to protect carpeted areas with a smooth plastic mat immediately underneath the procedural area.

    Sinks dedicated for the washing of hands should be supplied as close as possible to the area where the procedure is being undertaken.  Hands may become contaminated if the sink being used is itself contaminated, for example, an instrument processing sink.

    It is recommended that hand basins should be provided with hygiene taps that are elbow, wrist, knee, foot or sensor operated. In premises without these facilities, care should be taken to ensure taps and basins are kept clean. Avoid touching taps with gloved hands and use a disposable paper towel to turn taps off.

  • What are the considerations if using sharps when working with human research subjects and patients?

    Sharps represent a major cause of biological hazard incidents involving potential exposure to blood-borne diseases.

    • Workers must at all times handle sharps with care so as to minimise injury to themselves, to human research subjects and patients and to other persons in the workplace involved in the collection of discarded materials and refuse, e.g. into a sharps bin.
    • The person who has used the sharp is responsible for its immediate safe disposal following use.
    • A clearly labelled, puncture-resistant sharps container should be kept as close as possible to the area where sharps are used. Single-use needles, scalpel blades, razor blades, etc. should not be replaced into their original container or packaging.
    • Needles should not be bent or broken or otherwise manipulated by hand.
    • Sharp instruments should not be passed by hand between workers.
  • Where can I get information regarding biological emergency procedures, transportation and waste management when working with human research subjects and patients?

    Please refer to the Biological Safety Management handbook chapter:

    • Appendix C Emergencies
    • Appendix D Transportation
    • Appendix E Waste disposal

    or contact your local HSW team.

Further information

Please contact your local HSW Team.