IRSST - Institut de recherche Robert-Sauvé en santé et en sécurité du travail

Chemical and Biological Hazard Prevention

Prévention des risques chimiques et biologiques

Priority issues

Every year, many Québec workers develop occupational diseases related to overexposure to chemical substances, including the following:

  • asbestos;
  • silica;
  • beryllium;
  • styrene;
  • wood dust.

Biological agents can also be a disease factor in many work environments. Such agents include:  

  • bacteria;
  • fungi;
  • moulds.

This situation could often be prevented through improved knowledge of the agents involved and the related health risks, and through greater awareness of these hazards. 

The development and implementation of effective primary prevention measures remains the best option. In many cases, approaches adapted to the treatment and rehabilitation of workers who have developed such health problems also prove necessary.

How are the priority issues put into perspective?

Above all, we use:

  • statistical data;
  • research mapping;
  • scientific monitoring and surveillance;

 and we pay close attention to the needs expressed by workplaces.


The work done by the researchers in this field helps:

  • prevent occupational diseases and their adverse effects on health;
  • improve and sustain the health and well-being of workers exposed to chemical and biological agents:
  • through the development of new knowledge; or
  • through the use of existing knowledge.

The often multi- and interdisciplinary research conducted in this field focuses mainly on primary prevention and the development of adapted tools for use in enterprises. The IRSST responds to the needs identified by the CNESST, its partners, and Québec workplaces. The transfer and dissemination of information are strongly advocated.

Three research orientations have been defined in order to achieve these goals:

  • Development of strategies and methods for evaluating exposure and estimating health risks using toxicological and epidemiological approaches, among others;
  • Development and validation of technologies and tools designed to reduce and control exposure
  • Development of methods for sampling and analyzing chemical substances and biological agents.

Current programs

Exposure science

The aims of this thematic program are to consolidate and advance knowledge pertaining to the characterization of occupational exposure, using approaches such as modelling and exposure estimation for predictive and risk analysis purposes.

The studies conducted concern:

  • sampling strategies, primarily regarding inhalation and dermal exposure, and data interpretation:
    • dusts in the ambient air, in the oronasal region, and on the dermis;
    • deposited dusts;
    • exposure biomarkers in the blood and urine;
  • metrology;
  • the effective use of existing data for epidemiological, monitoring, and surveillance purposes.

Ventilationand air quality

The aims of this thematic program are to develop and validate methods for evaluating the efficiency of ventilation and local exhaust systems, and to study filtration and the aeraulic parameters of pollutant emission, dispersion, and capture.  

This program is closely linked to those on exposure science and microorganisms in the workplace, and to the nanoparticle research theme.

Asbestos and other elongated mineral particles

The focal points of this thematic program are industrial hygiene and exposure surveillance.

The studies conducted concern:

  • the evaluation of respiratory protection programs;
  • the evaluation of the efficiency of containment measures where asbestos is present;
  • the study of the effectiveness of exposure reduction measures;
  • the evaluation and implementation of exposure analysis and evaluation methods;
  • medical surveillance (under the responsibility of the Institut national de santé publique du Québec).

Microorganisms in the workplace

The aims of this thematic program are to continue developing knowledge on bioaerosols by broadening the scope to include all microbial problems.

The studies conducted concern:

  • the development of state-of-the-art techniques for improving identification of microorganisms and their by-products;
  • the diversification of sampling strategies;
  • the evaluation of the effects and early signs of the effects on worker health.

Current themes


The aim of this research theme is to promote the development of a variety of information tools and risk management support tools for use by establishments and workplaces that potentially expose Québec workers to nanoparticles (NPs) in a context where a growing number of enterprises are developing new markets thanks to nanotechnologies.

The studies conducted concern:

  • metrology and the characterization of nanoparticles;
  • the analysis of their aerodynamic behaviour;
  • risk evaluation;
  • means of exposure control.


Identify the workers at the highest risk of exposure, evaluate their exposure, and develop preventive actions to control the health risks.

Asthma and obstructive respiratory diseases in the workplace

The aims of this research theme are to identify the causal agents and work situations most often associated with asthma and obstructive respiratory diseases in the workplace.

The studies conducted under this theme concern:

  • diagnostic methods;
  • metrology and analyses;
  • exposure evaluation;
  • control and prevention of worker exposure to pollutants;
  • rehabilitation and reintegration into workplaces adapted to the condition of asthmatic workers.

Chemical and biological contaminants in agricultural environments

The aims of this research theme are to identify the agricultural workers at the highest risk of exposure to chemical and biological contaminants, evaluate their exposure, and estimate the potential health risks.

The studies conducted concern the characterization of biological and chemical environments in the agricultural industry and their effects on the respiratory system.

Statistical data: priority issues explained

During the 2005–2007 period:

  • chemical products and compounds1 caused slightly more than 1,500 CNESST-accepted injuries a year on average, including approximately 350 injuries attributable to occupational diseases;
  • biological agents caused an average of 1,360 CNESST-accepted injuries a year, including 80 cases of occupational diseases.

The proportion of all CNESST-accepted injuries related to biological agents, while still remaining small, more than quadrupled between 2000 and 2008.

During the same period, 10% of the accepted occupational diseases, excluding musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), were caused by:

  • chemical products and compounds (8%);
  • or biological agents (2%).
  • Of these, 36% resulted in time-loss injuries compensated for an average of 395 days, that is, three months longer than for all diseases other than MSDs.  

Six CNESST-accepted occupational diseases caused by chemical products and compounds1 were associated with more than 25 cases annually and represented 86% of all cases:   

  • asbestosis;
  • mesothelioma;
  • contact dermatitis;
  • other eczemas;
  • malignant tumours (cancer);
  • silicosis;
  • asthma.

Between 2005 and 2011, an average of 117 deaths occurred annually due to occupational diseases caused by exposure to harmful substances or environments:

  • 81% were related to asbestos;
  • 11% to silica;
  • 8% to other substances:
    • aromatic hydrocarbons;
    • metallic particles;
    • dusts;
    • powders;
    • fumes.

  1. The definition used includes radiant metals, non-metallic minerals, dusts, and particles, in addition to chemical products and compounds.
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