Tips for Lab Safety During a Pandemic

The COVID-19 pandemic has put laboratories on edge, even if they're not testing for the novel coronavirus. And rightfully so: COVID-19 is highly infectious; symptoms are mild — or nonexistent — for some, but fatal for others.  Lab safety is always a top priority, but rules can sometimes fall by the wayside. Equipment, for example, might not get cleaned as often as the protocol demands, and employees may not always strictly adhere to safe work practices. Don't let lab safety lapse.

Now is the time to protect your laboratory, your colleagues, and yourself. Here are some tips how.

Practical Steps to Mitigate Your Risk

Even if your lab team is working with a skeleton crew and only performing mission-critical tasks, like keeping precious cultures alive, during the pandemic, it should still strictly abide by standard lab safety protocols. Risk prevention, Lab Manager says, requires both individual precautions and lab-specific measures.

Individual Precautions

Whether they're coming to the lab or not, everyone should carefully follow the precautions prescribed by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).

  • Wash your hands frequently, especially after contacting commonly touched surfaces. Use soap and water, and wash for at least 20 seconds. If soap and water aren't available, use a hand sanitizer with at least 60 percent alcohol.
  • Don't touch your face if you haven't washed your hands.
  • Stay home if you feel sick, and encourage others to do the same. If you've been exposed to the virus and you develop its common symptoms — dry cough, fever and difficulty breathing — seek immediate medical attention.
  • Stay home to further minimize potential exposure. Avoid any contact with sick people.

Lab-specific Precautions

To ensure the lab is safe for everyone, staff should exercise extra precautions to minimize the risk of person-to-person infection and surface contamination.

  • Follow the guidelines established by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration about readying workplaces for the coronavirus.
  • Limit close contact. Be aware of where others are in the lab, and keep as much distance as possible. Limit movements throughout the lab to essential trips. This guidance from Rochester University might help.
  • Institute remote working policies and stagger shifts when possible to minimize the number people in the lab at one time.
  • Promote proper hand hygiene. Provide hand-washing stations throughout the lab and ensure that hand sanitizer is well stocked and readily available.
  • Clean and disinfect frequently touched surfaces, such as equipment and cabinet handles, with products that meet the Environmental Protection Agency's criteria for use against the SARS-CoV-2 virus. Wear personal protective equipment (PPE) while cleaning. Wipe down reusable PPE afterward.
  • If someone working in the lab contracts COVID-19, follow the protocols established by the CDC. Close off and decontaminate any areas used by the sick person with an EPA-recommended disinfectant. Engage a professional decontamination service, if necessary.

Ensure that every member of the lab knows and understands the latest protocols and policies. Use a checklist, such as this one from the Association of Public Health Laboratories, to assess potential safety hazards. If ever there were a time to reassess your lab's safety policies, it's now. If your lab's protocols need to be updated, whether to deal with the novel coronavirus or just because it's time, update them.

Be diligent and thorough. Inaction could have grave consequences for you or someone around you. As a lab professional, you're on the frontlines of the fight to slow the spread of COVID-19.

Corning Life Sciences is fully committed to serving our customers across the life sciences industry, particularly at a time when the work being done by many researchers is critical to the management of the COVID-19 pandemic.