Crime Scene Safety
Written by Andrew Whitmarsh   

Professionals in the crime scene investigation, evidence collection and preservation and forensic science fields face high risks each time they enter a crime scene. Immediate exposure to potential bloodborne pathogens, including hepatitis and HIV, make the risk for infection exponential, requiring strict compliance with safety and health-related workplace practices.


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Crime scene investigation professionals are exposed to human biohazards on the job, and therefore should know their specific risks, rights, and responsibilities, specifically in relation to bloodborne pathogens. Being complacent is not an option when it comes to your health and the laws that seek to protect it.

Bloodborne Pathogens:
Know the Risks

Each deceased individual carries an unknown risk to crime scene investigators, and how that person passed can affect the way pathogens spread. Some cases are more obvious, like murders and suicides, where investigators must protect themselves from skin breaches and biohazardous fluids.

Unattended deaths also pose serious threats, particularly in advanced stages of decomposition or trauma. There’s a reason it smells bad: fluids and gases have escaped the body, and insect activity and airborne bacteria further cross-contaminate a room or building. It is essential that those in the forensic field know how to safely deal with life-threatening biohazard materials while working at the scene of a crime.

Bloodborne pathogens don’t always die when a person does. The Hepatitis B virus and HIV can survive in a deceased person up to 16 days after death. HIV has been discovered in biological materials up to six days postmortem. Clostridium difficile (C. diff) spores can colonize outside the body and are not affected by alcohol-based hand sanitizer. Exposure to bloodborne viruses can take place in many ways, including splashes of bio fluid or blood to the eyes, nose, or mouth; being in direct contact with non-intact skin or affected surfaces; and having biological fragments puncture the skin. Even if you don’t get sick, there’s an additional complication risk of passing contaminants to other persons via touching an affected surface and then passing it along via equipment, notebooks, and vehicles.

There are new risks facing forensic scientists and crime scene investigators today. As bacteria become increasingly immune to antibiotics, more dangerous superbugs are developing. According to a report from the U.S. Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), over two million Americans develop antibiotic-resistant infections per year, and roughly 23,000 die as a result. The development of these bacterial infections increase the importance of understanding the life span of pathogens and following OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Standard.

The 3Rs:
Risks, Rights, and Responsibilities

Blood, feces, urine, and vomit are all considered to be biohazards, and should be treated as such. Those who investigate crime scenes encounter occupational exposures to biological materials daily, via direct interaction with potentially infected individuals, so they must possess a heightened knowledge and awareness of the risks associated with crime scenes.

It’s the law: if your employer requires you to clean or be exposed to any biohazard, you should be given protective gear to lower your risk of contracting an infectious disease or other negative outcome. OSHA and most state safety agencies are clear in their regulations and recommendations for mitigating risks in a biohazard situation. Organizations whose employees are exposed to blood and biological materials in the course of their employment have certain responsibilities to ensure employee safety, and employees have rights to protect their health on the job.

Knowing the risks, rights and responsibilities, or the “3Rs,” regarding blood, body fluids, and biohazardous materials can help to lower the risk of infection through awareness of risk.

Biohazard Regulations
and BBP Protocol


Sealing the scene: Technicians contain an affected room by sealing with plastic sheeting, and then create an external "buffer zone" outside the room to control access and restrict cross contamination from affected materials. Photo: Aftermath

Given the risks associated with blood and biological matter, the Occupational Safety & Health Administration (OSHA) has developed a protocol specifically targeted at mitigating exposures to and damage from potentially infectious pathogens.

This protocol is commonly known as the Blood-Borne Pathogen (BBP) standard and can be found at 29 CFR 1910.1030, et seq.

The underlying premise set forth by OSHA in the BBP standard is that of universal precautions. Under the universal precautions premise, employers who are exposing employees to blood and biological materials are required to assume that all blood or biological material contains potentially infectious blood-borne pathogens such as hepatitis B, HIV, or tuberculosis. It is this universal assumption that requires such highly specialized regulations and a strict adherence to compliance.

OSHA also requires that exposure to bloodborne pathogens be limited as much as possible due to that same assumption. Actions taken to limit exposure fall under engineering controls and cross-contamination protocols, which require certain actions be taken to avoid further spreading the contamination throughout otherwise clean areas.

The Importance of
Maintaining OSHA Standards

Under the BBP protocol, an employee is also required to follow the general personal protective equipment (PPE) standards, and respiratory standards. Hazardous communication (Hazcom) standards may also apply.

Some of the specific protocols required of an employer that exposes its employees to blood and biological materials include but are not limited to the following:

  • Mandatory Hepatitis B vaccinations, to be paid for by the employer. Employees may choose to decline.
  • Annual training for all employees in the BBP, PPE, and respiratory standards, paid for by the employer.
  • A written exposure control plan outlining the steps needed to protect employees from pathogen exposure. The plan should be written by the employer, as well as reviewed and updated annually with employee participation. All employees should know how and where to access the exposure control plan.
  • Providing the proper personal protective equipment to the employees at the employer’s cost, as well as training in how to properly use PPE. Proper PPE includes puncture-resistant gloves, full-body suits, booties, and a full-face respirator, all with changes at regular intervals to prevent employee exposure and also cross-contamination.
  • Following mandatory heat-stress protocols to prevent an employee from suffering a heat-stress injury (such as heat stroke) caused by working within a non-permeable suit (i.e. pathogens cannot get in but sweat cannot get out) while doing manual labor.

The Nature of the Job: Always be Aware of Risk

Keeping in compliance with OSHA regulations will not only keep employers from being penalized, but more importantly, it will keep employees safe. Professionals in the industry of crime scene investigation and forensic science have always possessed a heightened awareness of risk. However, the nature of an investigator’s work can sometimes allow for professionals to become habituated to the dangers, as exposure to bloodborne pathogens and disease is a regular part of working among deceased at the scene of a crime.

However, the fact remains that these risks are more prevalent than they seem. According to CDC data, one out of every 24 people has hepatitis B, hepatitis C, or HIV, and these pathogens can potentially survive inside or outside of a deceased person for a considerable amount of time.

It is vital to take increased precaution against spreading new, dangerous antibiotic-resistant bacteria. Maintaining strict compliance with safety and health-related workplace practices, including OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens Standard, will help to minimize risk if applied consistently to all exposure situations.

While the legal responsibility for safety rests with employers, the onus is on each employee to keep themselves safe on the job. Common sense is the best protective equipment of all.

About the Author

Andrew Whitmarsh is the Operations Safety & Compliance Manager at Aftermath, a national company with local offices through the U.S., specializing in crime scene clean up and biohazard remediation following unattended deaths, homicides, and suicides in homes and businesses.

 
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