The University of Iowa

SAFETYmatters - Responding to an Occupational Exposure

If you work with biological hazards (i.e. cell lines, laboratory animals, human or animal blood or bodily fluids, viral vectors, recombinant/synthetic nucleic acids, biological toxins, or pathogens) it is crucial that you know how to properly respond in the event of an exposure. The steps that should be taken following an exposure to biological hazards are outlined below; they can also be found in the UI Biological Safety Manual.

Exposures Resulting from a Spill:

If the exposure is associated with a hazardous spill that is difficult to contain within the laboratory or the facility, and/or it constitutes a significant health hazard, evacuate the area immediately. If a biological safety cabinet or fume hood is in the room, leave it on and immediately exit the room. Close and lock the door and post a "Biohazard" and "Do Not Enter" sign on the door to keep people out of the area and to prevent the spread of the contaminant.

First Aid:

Following an exposure to biological hazards, it is important to stay calm and immediately attend to the injury/exposure. Cleanse the exposed area thoroughly using mild soap and water. Do not use harsh detergents or abrasive scrubbing on wounds. For a mucus membrane exposure (i.e. eyes, nose, mouth), flush the area with copious amounts of water.

Immediately After Performing First Aid:

  • Report the incident immediately to your supervisor. Refer to the University Policy Manual (Part III. Human Resources, Chapter 34: Accidents) for the policy. 
  • Report to the proper facility for medical evaluation and treatment.
    • In case of a medical emergency, injured workers should proceed to University of Iowa Hospitals and Clinics (UIHC) Emergency Department. If seen in the Emergency Department, contact University Employee Health Clinic (UEHC) or UI Occupational Health Clinic for a follow-up the next working day.
    • When a hazardous exposure incident occurs, a medical evaluation and follow-up will be done by UI Occupational Health Clinic, which is located at 2591 Holiday Rd, Coralville, IA. The UI Occupational Health Clinic can be reached by calling 319-356-3335.
    • For exposures to bloodborne pathogens (i.e. exposure to human blood or body fluids), a medical evaluation and follow-up will be done by the University Employee Health Clinic (UEHC), which is located on the first floor of Boyd Tower in UIHC and can be reached by calling 319-356-3631.
  • During your medical evaluation you should:
    • Inform medical personnel of the biological agent(s) or material to which you were exposed. If the exposure involved a chemical, provide medical personnel with the chemical’s safety data sheet (SDS), if possible. 
    • Inform medical personnel of the conditions and route under which exposure occurred. 
    • Discuss with medical personnel the signs and symptoms of infection with the biological agent(s) to which you were exposed. Ensure you are made aware of the signs/symptoms to watch for following your visit and what you should do if those signs/symptoms appear. 

Supervisor Responsibilities 

Supervisors who are informed of an exposure event are responsible for:

  • Ensuring any spills of hazardous materials are properly addressed. Spill cleanup procedures can be found in the Section VII(i) of the UI Biological Safety Manual.
  • Ensuring a Worker's Compensation First Report of Injury form is completed online through the Employee Self Service site within 24 hours.
  • Promptly notifying the Biosafety Officer of incidents that result in an exposure to biological hazards, including recombinant nucleic acids.

Post-Exposure Control Method Evaluation 

EHS's biosafety staff, in conjunction with the PI and the employee(s) involved, will evaluate the circumstances of the exposure incident. The goal of this evaluation is to identify and correct problems to prevent recurrence of similar incidents. The evaluation procedure includes: 

  • Documentation of the route of exposure and circumstances under which the incident occurred. 
  • Evaluation of the policies and "failures to control" at the time of the incident. 
  • Recording engineering controls that were in place at the time. 
  • Recording work practices and protective equipment or clothing that were used at the time of the incident. 
  • Determining what action(s) could prevent this or a similar incident in the future. 

Questions regarding information presented in this article can be directed to EHS Biosafety Officer, Nyree Mortensen (319-353-5679) or Associate Biosafety Officer, Thomas James (319-467-4403).