Working with biological agents

Work with biological materials (microorganisms, cell cultures and parasites) can result in infections, allergies or poisoning in people. Individuals who work with biological materials must familiarize themselves with risk analysis and local procedures for the work they carry out.

Norsk versjon - Arbeid med biologiske faktorer

Guidelines for managers in working enviroments with biological agents and materials

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What are biological agents?

Biological agents are living and dead microorganism, cell cultures, endoparasites and prions that can result in infections, allergies or poisoning in people. These materials may be unaltered or genetically modified.

Living biological materials

Living biological agents are classified using four infection risk categories based on the infection risk the materials pose. To protect workers from infection, biological agents can only be handled in laboratories and workshops that have been classified as containment levels 1 2, 3 or 4 (highest level). Infection risk groups and the minimum requirements for containment levels are described in the regulation Forskrift om tiltaks- og grenseverdier (in Norwegian).

Dead biological agents

Biological agents that are "dead" or were never alive, such as enzymes, proteins or amino acids, are still considered biological agents. These can result in allergic or toxic reactions.

Genetically modified microorganisms

Genetic engineering is a technique that involves isolating genetic material, characterizing it, modifying it and inserting it into living cells or viruses. Genetic engineering is regulated by the Genetic Engineering law (in Norwegian). The use of genetically modified organisms is governed by the Regulation on the contained use of genetically modified organisms (in Norwegian).


If you work with biological agents that are classified as risk groups 3 or 4 you must have complete protective clothing and ensure that you are working at an adequate containment level.

Units should conduct risk assessments of activities that involve the handling of biological agents. Units that work with biological agents must also implement measures to eliminate or control all risks. Examples of these actions include: Building or technical containment measures/barriers (activities in the room which are separated from other activities, pressurized air zones, ventilation, fume hoods), specific routines, personal protective equipment, training and vaccinations.

If the risk assessment shows that you could be exposed to biological agents, you should have a medical exam at the Occupational Health Services. If there are vaccines that can protect you from infection by the biological agents that you are exposed to, you will be offered a vaccine.

Handling and storage

  • You should be careful in handling microorganisms, because some can cause illness in humans (human pathogens).
  • Sterile techniques are necessary to ensure the aseptic transfer of microorganisms, such as from a culture to another medium. The same applies to cell culture.
  • When sampling, you should use sterilized single-use equipment or sterilized multiple-use equipment. Sterile technique can vary based on what you are working with, whether a bacterial culture or if you work with a cell culture at a security bench.
  • Cleanliness and precision are important. These skills are also important in avoiding the contamination of the surrounding area.
  • Clean your workplace well before you begin working. Clean and disinfect your workplace after you have used it.
  • Destroy and dispose of all biological materials after your research is completed.
  • Store biological agents, such as bacteria and cell lines, in carefully sealed, clearly marked containers in their own incubator or cabinet that is specifically designed for the job.


  • Disinfection is a process that kills most infectious bacteria and viruses.
  • To prevent you or others from being infected, or to prevent potentially infectious agents from being spread to the environment, you should disinfect your work area before you clean it. You can read more about this in the laboratory and workshop handbook ch. 10.6.


  • All equipment that has been in contact with biological agents should either be autoclaved before it is washed (reusable equipment) or should be disposed of in biohazard bags that have been marked as infectious wastes (disposable equipment) .
  • Bacterial cultures in solution or the supernatant from centrifuging bacteria should be autoclaved and then disposed of as non-hazardous waste (empty the washwater under a fume hood). This does not apply to solutions that contain organic solvents. In this case, bacteria should be rendered harmless by adding lye. Agar plates with bacterial cultures should be autoclaved in autoclave bags and can afterward be disposed of in regular trash, or disposed of with hazardous waste, marked as infectious waste.

If there is a problem

Report an accident or a near-accident

Exposure index

Working with biological agents in infection risk groups 3 and 4 may imply registration in the Exposure index. Go to Exposure index to see what actions are necessary. To get into the index: Log into the substance index, click 'Administration' in the menu on the left side, and click 'Exposure'.


NTNU regulations




Approved by Director of HSE - December 18th 2015 - HMSRV5301E - ePhorte 2016/3901