The Biological Risks of Being a Law Enforcement Officer

While arresting suspects, investigating crimes, conducting searches, or taking samples, police can be exposed to a staggering number of pathogens.

Let’s review the most important safety and health issues for law enforcement officers. Some hazards are tracked and analyzed, others are not. According to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, the leading causes of occupational fatalities among police officers are highway incidents and homicides. Additionally, untracked serious health risks include other occupational injuries, occupational stress and unavoidable physical contact with people who have contagious diseases.

Sure, LEOs have a higher risk of being attacked, wounded or even killed at work than almost all other professions. But you also have a much higher chance of exposure to a debilitating and even life- threatening illness.

While arresting suspects, investigating crimes, conducting searches, or taking samples, police can be exposed to a staggering number of pathogens.

The Transmission of Communicable Diseases

A disease is termed communicable (CD) if it is infectious and can be transmitted from a sick person to a healthy person. Communicable diseases are caused by four main types of organisms: bacteria, viruses, fungi, and parasites. Most infectious diseases are passed from person to person; however, others are transmitted via bites from insects and animals, acquired by ingesting contaminated food or water, and other exposures in the environment. The most common modes of transmission are listed below.

  • Bloodborne pathogens are transmitted when contaminated blood or body fluids enter the body of another person. This can occur through a number of ways: an accidental puncture by a sharp object contaminated with the pathogen (needles, scalpels, razor blades, broken glass, pen); cuts or skin abrasions coming in contact with contaminated blood or body fluids; or sexual contact. Examples include HIV and hepatitis viruses.
  • Droplet contact (also known as the airborne or respiratory route) occurs when an infected person coughs or sneezes on another person. The microorganisms, suspended in warm, moist droplets, may enter the body through the nose, mouth or eye surfaces. Examples include tuberculosis and influenza.
  • Fecal-oral transmission occurs when food or water becomes contaminated and then consumed. Examples include Hepatitis A and polio.
  • Sexual transmission occurs during sexual activity with an infected partner. Examples include syphilis and gonorrhea.
  • Transmission by direct contact with objects such as sharing towels or clothes. Examples include Athlete’s foot and warts.


The Dreaded Diseases

Universally, the most feared contagious diseases for law enforcement officers are HIV and Hepatitis C as there is currently no vaccinations to prevent these life-threatening infections. However, treatment for both diseases has become increasingly effective.

Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV): HIV is a virus contracted from an infected person's blood, semen, vaginal fluid, breast milk, saliva, and body fluids surrounding joints and organs. To contract the disease infected body fluids must come in contact with an uninfected person’s blood. More than one million people in the United States currently are living with HIV/AIDS. Of course the risk of contracting HIV is ever present; the truth is that the perception of the risk far exceeds the probability. The risk of contraction is 0.03%; only about one in 300 of HIV exposure incidents (needle stick or cut) results in transmission of the disease.   There has been no case to date where an individual has been infected with HIV via contact with an environmental surface. HIV is a fragile virus and is easily killed by hot water, soap, bleach and alcohol. The virus can only last outside the body as long as blood or body fluid remains liquid.

Hepatitis C Virus (HCV): Hepatitis C is basically contracted the same way as the HIV virus is. More than four million people in the United States currently are living with HCV. The risk of contraction of Hepatitis C is 1.8% (6 times greater than HIV). The hepatitis C virus, or HCV, can live outside the body for up to 4 days. However, many experts think it usually only survives up to 16 hours at room temperature

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