Last reviewed 9 July 2020

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

One of the eight Covid Secure guides 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.

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? As usual, it starts with a risk assessment. Think about the risks of Covid, and put in place sensible control measures, in order of priority, to minimise them.

Personal protective equipment (PPE)

There has been a great deal of concern that PPE should be preserved for workers in healthcare settings.

However, the new Government guidance is clear: "Supplies of PPE, including face masks, must continue to be reserved for those who need them to protect against risks in their workplace, such as… those in industrial settings like those exposed to dust hazards." 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 already being used to ensure protection against non-Covid-19 risks, it should continue to be used.

Social distancing

Social distancing has been at the forefront of every Government effort to manage the Covid-19 outbreak, and throughout the pandemic, remote working has been and continues to be the preferred option for everyone. In addition, 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.

For lab managers thinking about restarting operations, they should aim for as low a building occupancy as possible and establish ancing 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, the lab manager 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.

  • 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.

Air and ventilation

Before restarting operations, ventilation 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. Appropriate air-handling and filtering systems must in any case be installed and maintained in high-risk areas where there is a risk for airborne particles.

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.

Re-opening labs after a full shut down is always a step-by-step process where checklists are invaluable. Informing staff of the new guidelines should be done with simple, clear messaging, using visual communications wherever possible.

Conclusion

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

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.