Covid Secure: working safely for labs and research facilities

The UK Government has published a set of guidance documents to assist a range of workplaces to establish safe operations. Dr Lisa Bushby considers the latest official advice given to labs and similar environments.

The Government has been reviewing its Covid Secure guides throughout the pandemic, and has made regular updates to its guidance on restarting operations and keeping employees and others safe. One of the Covid Secure guides for England relates specifically to indoor labs, research facilities and similar environments, such as engineering centres, wet labs and clean rooms, analytical testing facilities and prototyping centres. The devolved administrations have their own guidance, see Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland.

These types of facilities typically require on-site collaboration between employees and the frequent handling of common items, such as chemicals, tools, equipment and machinery, but while we are all eager to get back in the lab, any steps towards this need to be measured — the overriding priority must be ensuring employees' safety during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Before recommencing any experimental laboratory work, lab supervisors will need to review general health and safety control measures, eg equipment PAT dates, fume hood operation, ventilation issues, cooling units, vacuum systems.

There may be additional pressures on resources for lab managers to deal with before work can be safely restarted, including gas lines, liquid nitrogen, molecular reagents and personal protective equipment (PPE). These are likely to be in high demand and short supply.

What actions do lab managers need to take to restart operations, keep employees safe, and manage the risks of Covid-19? The guidance now includes a set of priority actions, which as usual start with a risk assessment.

Priority actions for lab managers

The guidance includes a set of eight priority actions, which start with a risk assessment, for lab managers to use to protect themselves and others during coronavirus.

  1. Complete a Covid-19 risk assessment.

  2. Clean more often.

  3. Ask visitors to wear face coverings where required to do so by law.

  4. Ensure everyone is social distancing.

  5. Increase ventilation by keeping doors and windows open where possible and running ventilation systems at all times.

  6. Take part in NHS Test and Trace by keeping a record of all staff, contractors and visitors for 21 days.

  7. Turn people with coronavirus symptoms away.

  8. Consider the mental health and wellbeing aspects of Covid-19.

There are additional considerations for labs and research facilities which will be covered in this article.

  • Work with the same team every day. Use fixed teams or shift patterns to reduce the number of people each person comes into contact with.

  • Reduce crowding. Consider how many people can be in each space while remaining socially distant. Use fixed teams or have staff book rooms or labs to avoid overcrowding.

  • Arrange workspaces to keep staff apart. Consider using barriers between workstations and introduce back-to-back or side-to-side working.

  • Clean shared equipment. Clean workstations and shared equipment frequently and limit the number of people who use them.

  • Communicate and train.  Ensure all staff and customers are kept up to date with how safety measures are being used and updated. 

Note:

Covid secure measures should continue even if employees have recently tested negative or had the vaccine.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

PPE such as safety helmets, gloves, eye protection, high visibility clothing, safety footwear and safety harnesses is used extensively as a control measure in many lab and research facilities. It also includes respiratory protective equipment, such as face masks. The message from the Government is that if PPE is used to ensure protection against non-Covid-19 risks, it should continue to be used.

Lab managers can provide extra non-recycling bins for workers and visitors to dispose of single use face coverings and PPE.

If staff are using PPE at work to protect against risks other than coronavirus, they can throw it away in the usual way. It is not necessary for lab managers to collect PPE separately but, if it is, it must be described and coded correctly. Waste contractors can also advise on any additional measures.

Staff should be advised to remove PPE, including any face coverings carefully, and avoid touching the face. After removing PPE, wash hands or use hand sanitiser.

Social distancing

Social distancing has been at the forefront of every Government effort to manage the Covid-19 outbreak, and guidance now states that those who can work from home should continue to do so while others should go to their place of work. Employers should consult with their employees to determine who can come into the workplace safely and should take into account a person’s journey, caring responsibilities, protected characteristics, and other individual circumstances. Extra consideration should be given to those people at higher risk, ie those who:

  • are older males

  • have a high body mass index

  • have health conditions, such as diabetes

  • are from some black, asian and ethnic minority backgrounds.

When employers consider that workers should come into their place of work, then this will need to be reflected in the Covid-19 workplace risk assessment and actions taken to manage the risks of transmission in line with this guidance.

Anyone with symptoms of Covid-19, as well as those who live in a household or are in a support bubble with someone who has symptoms, and those who are advised to self-isolate as part of the NHS Test and Trace program, must stay at home. Employers must not knowingly require or encourage someone who is being required to self-isolate to come to work.

Any workers who have symptoms of Covid-19, ie a high temperature, new and persistent cough or anosmia (loss or changed sense of smell), however mild, should self-isolate for at least 10 days from when the symptoms started. Workers who have tested positive for Covid-19 should self-isolate for at least 10 days starting from the day the test was taken. Where a worker has tested positive while not experiencing symptoms but develops symptoms during the isolation period, they should restart the 10-day isolation period from the day the symptoms developed.

Working from home

If some staff are able to work from home, managers should check on their wellbeing and help them stay connected to the rest of the workforce, especially if the majority of their colleagues are on-site.

Those working from home should also be provided with equipment to enable them to work safely and effectively, eg with remote access to work systems.

Social distancing in the lab

Lab managers should aim for as low a building occupancy as possible and establish distancing as far as is practicable within buildings and labs.

Lab-type facilities generally need workers to share workstations and equipment. While dealing with Covid-19, however, if they need to be shared, they should be shared by the smallest possible number of people. Social distancing within labs may be achieved through a number of routes, such as through the demarcation of work zones by using floor tape or paint to help people maintain a distance, staggering workdays, keeping the activity time involved as short as possible, effective shift working, etc.

While accepting the limitations of some lab environments, lab managers may also consider the following measures to establish suitably distanced work zones.

  • One person, one workbench (with at least a 1m+ distance, if mitigating measures are taken, preferably 2m).

  • Where it is not possible to maintain distances, introduce screens or barriers between workbenches or specific pieces of equipment or machinery.

  • Where it is not possible to organise equipment and benches so they are further apart, arrange that employees work back-to-back or side-to-side rather than face-to-face.

  • Encourage use of radios/walkie talkies/telephones (where permitted) for employees to communicate critical information across the lab/building and discourage shouting.

  • Reduce the number of people who work in the same area by establishing fixed teams or partnering. As far as possible, where people are split into teams or shift groups, fix these teams or shift groups so that, where contact is unavoidable, this happens between the same limited number of people.

  • A temporary record of staff shift patterns should be kept for 21 days to assist NHS Test and Trace with requests for data, if needed. In addition, a single point of contact to lead on contacting local public health teams in the event of a Covid-19 outbreak should be assigned. If there is more than one case of Covid-19 associated with the workplace, it should be reported to the local PHE health protection team as a suspected outbreak.

  • Identify areas where people have to directly pass things to each other, for example, analyte, equipment, control units, and find ways to remove direct contact, such as using put-down-pick-up processes.

  • Stagger break times and make outside areas available for breaks (encourage employees to bring their own food).

  • Create additional space by using other parts of the worksite that have been freed up by remote working.

  • Introduce a one-way flow through the lab and building paying particular attention to long corridors common in lab facilities.

  • Use visual communications, eg whiteboards or signage, to explain changes to schedules, breakdowns or materials shortages, to reduce the need for face-to-face communications.

Lab supervisors must remain vigilant of the need to balance distancing while avoiding lone working; also to ensure that work is being carried out safely to all relevant regulatory requirements that might be affected by distancing. Certain high-risk work, for instance, requires at least two persons working together. This includes work in a confined space or work with fumigation. Pairs of people should be fixed to reduce the number of people workers have to be in direct contact with.

Note that in an emergency, for example, a chemical spill, fire or for the provision of first aid, people do not have to comply with social distancing guidelines if it would be unsafe.

People involved in the provision of assistance to others should pay particular attention to sanitation measures immediately afterwards, including washing hands.

Air and ventilation

Ventilation should be used as a control measure to reduce the risk of aerosol transmission of Covid-19 in enclosed spaces. The risk of transmission is greater in spaces that are poorly ventilated.

Poorly ventilated areas may be identified by:

  • looking for areas where people work and where there is no mechanical ventilation or natural ventilation such as open windows, doors or vents

  • checking that mechanical systems provide outdoor air, temperature control or both. If a system only recirculates air and has no outdoor air supply, the area is likely to be poorly ventilated

  • areas that feel stuffy or smell bad

  • using carbon dioxide (CO2) monitors. (monitors are less effective in areas used by few people).

There are different ways of providing ventilation, including mechanical ventilation using fans and ducts, natural ventilation which relies on passive flow through openings (doors, windows, vents) or a combination of the two. Note that ventilation will not reduce the risk of droplet or surface transmission, so other control measures such as cleaning and social distancing are also required.

Before restarting operations, mechanical ventilation systems (including air conditioning systems) may need to be serviced or adjusted so they do not automatically reduce ventilation levels as a result of lower than normal occupancy levels. Positive pressure systems and extractors can operate as normal.

Mechanical ventilation brings fresh air from outside into a building and should be maintained in line with manufacturers’ instructions. They will provide adequate ventilation if they are set to maximise fresh air and minimise recirculation.

  • Do not lower mechanical ventilation rates if the number of people reduces in an area temporarily, but base ventilation rates on the maximum “normal” occupancy of an area.

  • Determine if the system draws in fresh air, and if it provides adequate ventilation. It may be necessary to increase the rate or supplement with natural ventilation (opening doors, windows and air vents) where possible.

  • Consider extending the operating times of mechanical ventilation systems to before and after people use work areas.

It is preferable not to recirculate air from one space to another. Where it is not possible to provide adequate ventilation through the measures above, it is possible to use local air cleaning and filtration units, such as high-efficiency filters or ultraviolet-based devices, to reduce airborne transmission of aerosols.

Any unit should be appropriate for the size of the area they are used in to ensure they work in the way they are intended to.

provide ventilation. This is because filtration units remove contaminants (such as coronavirus) from the air but do not remove CO2.

Legionella

If the building or lab premises have been unoccupied for a period during any lockdown, lab managers are required to control the risks of legionella bacteria by introducing appropriate measures, such as identifying whether conditions will encourage bacteria to multiply, and taking appropriate steps prior to reopening, such as:

  • flushing through simple hot/cold water systems with fresh mains water for several minutes

  • increasing the temperature of hot water systems to above 60°C if possible and drawing it through to all hot water outlets

  • flushing through larger hot/cold water systems (including those with tanks, showers, calorifiers, etc) for a significant period of time

  • ensuring that the system is capable of delivering water at safe temperatures by checking temperatures ahead of reopening

  • undertaking a chemical or thermal disinfection of the water system

  • undertaking microbiological sampling for Legionella bacteria.

Clean surfaces

Cleaning protocols will need to be reviewed, with particular attention paid to increasing the frequency of handwashing (especially when employees arrive and before they depart the facilities, ie providing wash stations at entry and exit points to the building and individual labs), surface cleaning and the cleaning of common spaces.

While the guidance acknowledges that not all equipment and tools in labs and research facilities can be washed down, it indicates additional measures that lab managers can introduce to ensure surfaces remain clean, including:

  • providing hand sanitiser where handwashing facilities are not available

  • removing access controls on low category labs so employees don't need to use touch cards/keys and consider the security implications of any decisions and control measures put in place to manage the Covid-19 risk, as any revisions could present new or altered security risks that may require additional mitigation

  • limiting use of high-touch items such as shared control terminals, testing equipment, chemicals, apparatus and machinery

  • increasing provision of tools and supplies so lab workers have access to their own supplies and don't have to share things such as lab coats, solvents, hand tools, pens

  • washing lab clothing and equipment such as goggles and gloves on site rather than by individual staff members at home

  • requesting staff change into work clothing and equipment on site using appropriate facilities/changing areas

  • encouraging storage of personal items and clothing in personal storage spaces, such as lockers.

Any additional waste created as a result of extra cleaning may be disposed of in the usual way.

Workplace testing

Where testing on-site is provided it is essential that workplace testing is carried out in a safe manner and in an appropriate setting.

Free rapid lateral flow tests, to test employees with no coronavirus symptoms, can be ordered until 30 June 2021 by businesses in England who registered by the April deadline. Organisations that did not register will still be able to access tests through private providers and community testing sites.

Anyone in England can now get regular rapid lateral flow tests without having symptoms while free PCR tests are available for anyone displaying symptoms.

Communication and consultation with employees

Checklists are invaluable. Informing staff of the new guidelines should be done with simple, clear messaging, using visual communications wherever possible.

  • Provide clear, consistent and regular communication to improve understanding and consistency of ways of working.

  • Engage with workers and their representatives to explain and agree any changes in working arrangements.

  • Develop communication and training materials for workers prior to returning to site, especially around new procedures for arrival at work.

Risk assessment results must be shared with employees, preferably by publishing the results on the company website (all businesses with over 50 workers are expected to do this).

All managers are expected to demonstrate to lab workers and visitors that they have properly assessed their risk and taken appropriate measures to mitigate the risks from Covid, preferably by displaying a notification in a prominent place in the lab and on the company website. An example notice is available here.

Visitor and contractor safety

Encourage visits via remote connection where this is an option, and in other cases, limit the number of visitors at any one time and co-ordinate with other site users, for example where R&D facilities or labs are situated on science parks.

Inform visitors that they should be prepared to remove face coverings safely if asked to do so by police officers and staff for the purposes of identification.

Conclusion

There will inevitably be a range of challenges related to carrying out lab work in the age of Covid, but while the safety and wellbeing of staff will always have to be prioritised over the need and desire to work, by taking a pragmatic approach to these challenges we can all get back to experimenting, prototyping, building and innovating safely.

The Government's guidance for people who work in or run indoor labs and research facilities and similar environments can be found at GOV.UK.