Let’s Talk About Laboratory Health & Safety
Are laboratories dangerous places?
The answer is YES.
But only if appropriate control measures are not implemented while designing and operating laboratories.
Engineering controls are incorporated at the lab planning and design stage, but day-to-day operations involve a lot of administrative or management controls to ensure the safety of the lab users.
I have worked in a laboratory environment in academia and industry for over 25 years in various roles such as student, researcher, lab manager, team leader and now as a lab designer. Over this time, I have seen first-hand how laboratories have become safer. There could be a multitude of reasons for laboratories now being (dramatically) safer – globalisation leading to research collaborations and visibility, talent migration, access to information, tighter regulatory control, learning from accidents happening in other laboratories (on different continents), reputational risk and so on.
Let’s talk about the operational health and safety aspects of laboratories.
What makes laboratories dangerous?
Depending on each organisation’s research area e.g. chemistry, biology, physics, or interdisciplinary; and the complexity of research including type and quantities of chemicals used, pathogenicity of organisms tested or type of radiation used the handling, manipulation, storage, and disposal of the below materials makes laboratories dangerous.
Chemicals – carcinogenic, oxidising, flammable, corrosive, mutagenic substances
Biologicals – pathogenic organisms hazardous to users, co-workers, communities (sometimes without any available treatment)
Lasers, Radiation – harmful to users, co-workers, or passers-by.
But it is not all that scary.
We must remember that - as a minimum - all laboratory users are well qualified and trained to understand the subject area of their research and materials they are handling.
However, research by nature is exploring the unknown, and handling the unknown requires CAUTION.
There is a caveat; passionate and driven researchers chasing their research goals are sometimes reluctant to adhere to health and safety mandate (a hurdle in their path).
That is where the administrative controls play a massive role in health & safety. Controls can take a form of written procedures (standard operating procedures, SOPs, the standard of works, SOWs), proper induction and regular training, record-keeping, medical examinations (in some cases) and reporting.
Other practices include an extra level of scrutiny while handling very toxic, volatile materials or handling higher hazard group agents via protocol approval (e.g. scale-up reaction) or witnessing by senior team members.
Use of appropriate personal protection equipment, PPE, such as lab-coats, safety goggles and gloves are common in most laboratories, but some laboratories warrant the use of bodysuits and respirators.
Organisations assign designated Health & Safety Officers, HSOs or Biological Safety Officers, BSOs who oversee and ensure the health and safety compliance at all times. Many organisations have health and safety committees representing various divisions/specialisms that meet regularly to discuss health and safety, and to review processes and accident records. The HSO and BSO go through professional health and safety training regularly.
When working with start-ups, the Bulb team advise them to assign HSO/BSO as soon as possible.
Laboratories Health & Safety Post COVID-19
Due to the nature of the research work carried out, most labs are less densely populated than offices. Often every researcher has their assigned workspace, e.g. bench and fume cupboard in chemistry labs, hence allowing for natural distancing from each other.
However, many areas are shared between researchers, e.g. analytical instruments, cold rooms, store rooms, utility area etc. A clear management policy regarding cleaning equipment before and after, logging users, reporting etc. would be required with responsibilities assigned to various team members for compliance.
A more controlled approach would be needed for incubator and accelerator buildings where multiple companies share the lab facilities.
As per our understanding, many scientific and healthcare organisations were operating during the lockdown period, although some in shift patterns.
For example, one organisation split the team into am and pm teams, colour coded red and blue. The am team was to use benches - only - on the right side of the lab, all facing in the same direction and standing/sitting in a zig-zag manner to avoid exposure. The pattern was reversed for the pm team. Both the groups received video training on all the aspects of health and safety, ranging from how coronavirus spreads, to how to wear gloves, to safe disposal of waste.
A shared calendar indicating who is on which shift and their core activities for the day was created. As only critical lab staff on the premises were allowed, the calendar helped to keep an eye on non-compliance. The rest of the team would carry out tasks such as experimental planning, data analysis, literature search and meetings from home.
Some standard measures across organisations such as one way traffic flow, ample cleaning stations, an accurate log of users/usage, clear labelling of reagents, reactions, instruments, and waste; as well as crystal clear communication from management seem to be a way forward for laboratory health and safety in laboratories post COVID-19.
All the laboratories will need to review their safety procedures, processes, and protocols regularly.
Overall, health and safety considerations and management in laboratories are paramount at all times but during the crisis of COVID-19, the scientific and healthcare community has shown the world how truly resilient, innovative, responsive and inspirational it is.
Dr Manisha Kulkarni
Head of Science & Technology