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Blood borne viruses

What you need to know about blood borne viruses in the workplace

These pages give guidance for workers in roles where they may be exposed to blood borne viruses, such as Hepatitis B and C, and HIV/AIDS. 

  1. What are blood borne viruses and who is most at risk?
  2. Reducing risk of blood borne virus exposure
  3. Combating discrimination - employment and blood borne viruses
  4. Blood borne virus legislation

1. What are blood borne viruses and who is most at risk?

Blood-borne viruses (BBVs) are mainly found in blood or bodily fluids. The main BBVs of concern are Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), Hepatitis B (HBV) and Hepatitis C (HCV).

Those who come into contact with bodily fluids from other humans are at risk from BBVs. Particularly if their work involves sharp or abrasive implements that may break the skin (needle stick injuries). Workers that may often come into contact with used needles, or sharp objects, include

  • health and social care workers
  • recreation/parks, or grounds maintenance workers
  • staff who conduct bodily searches
  • staff who search through personal effects (security staff)
  • workers involved in building clearance, refurbishment and renovation.

The level of risk will depend on

  • the frequency and amount of contact they have with bodily fluids
  • the type of fluid or material they come into contact with
  • the age of the contaminated materials
  • the activity the person does with the infected material
  • the nature of the infection contained in the material.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is the virus which can cause Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). It can be transmitted through 

  • unprotected sexual contact
  • sharing injecting drug equipment
  • breast milk from mother to baby.

There is also a risk from needle stick injuries and from blood transfusions received in resource-poor countries. It is important to note that unless contaminated with blood, minimal risk of BBV infection is carried by urine, saliva, sweat, tears, sputum, vomit and faeces.

Hepatitis means inflammation of the liver and this can be caused by BBVs. Two of the most common are

  • hepatitis B (HBV) - mainly transmitted through blood, semen, vaginal fluid and breast milk. Importantly, there is an effective vaccination against Hepatitis B
  • hepatitis C (HCV) - mainly transmitted through blood, with a low risk of transmission through unprotected sexual contact. There is no vaccine against Hepatitis C and treatments are not effective.

You can read more about BBVs in the workplace on the HSE website.

Read guidance on Blood Borne Viruses in the Workplace

The Health Protection Agency (HPA) record the number of work place blood or other high-risk body fluid exposure incidents. You can read about these in the Eye of the Needle report (external site). The numbers are collated and reported bi-annually.