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Research lab safety during COVID-19

Posted on Thursday, November 19, 2020

By Lydia Morrison 

Topic: Tips for the lab

It’s a whole new world in the research lab during the COVID-19 pandemic. Well, sort of. Safety procedures in the laboratory have always been important and are even more so now than ever. So, let’s take a quick look at safe practices we should all be using in the lab, so that we can continue to be working in the lab our research. The CDC offers some basic guidelines on returning to laboratory work safely, like practicing social distancing, mask wearing, hand washing, cleaning and sanitizing common areas and shared equipment, and protecting lab members at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19. OSHA echoes many of these recommendations in their general guidance for workers and employers. In this article we will take a closer look at some precautions specific to lab-based roles, to keep you and your labmates safe and healthy. 

Have a Laboratory Health & Safety Plan

Make sure that your lab has access to or has created its own plan. First, check in with your institution, as they likely have rules in place. If not, you can create a plan for your lab using the guidelines below:
Understand any protocols for health monitoring
Have PPE on hand for lab members’ use 
Stagger lab work schedules and lunch breaks to avoid contact with other lab members
Save necessary non-lab work for at home
Make sure lab members know who they should contact if they are sick
Break up lab space so that members are at least six feet (2 meters) apart
Set up maximum capacities for meeting rooms and break spaces
Communicate with delivery rooms to understand policies for package pick-up and drop-off
Discourage visits from non-lab members 
Outline accountability for non-compliance events 

After you have a plan outlined, be sure to communicate it to all lab members and set up a virtual training session to make sure everyone is on the same page. You can also print out signage with reminders of some of the lab safety policies, like the ones below.

Lab safety during COVID19 signs
New England Biolabs offers these free printable signs to help scientists get back to work safely, you can access them all via the NEB Reboot Your Bench webpage.


Personal Safety in the Lab

There are things we can all do to mitigate our personal exposure and risk of contracting COVID-19. Some of these are probably practices that you are using in your personal life, but some are a bit more specific to lab. Let’s review:
Wash your hands frequently and for at least 20 seconds
Practice social distancing
Do not touch your face
Wear your mask (the right way… you know what I am talking about) and gloves
Wash lab coats frequently 
Add some hand sanitizer stations around phone and communal areas

The MyNEB® Digital Lab Assistant skill for Alexa, which offers help with scientific calculations and helpful enzyme info for voice-based inquires, is a great way to improve lab work efficiency. This is critical today since time in the lab is often much shorter due to social distancing safety requirements. 

MyNEB Alexa skill

Lab Equipment and Reagents

If your lab was left untended for a significant amount of time, you may have a bit of cleanup and catch up in your future. This helpful list outlines a number of activities and safety procedures to ensure that your lab equipment and reagents are ready for safe use. 
Check that equipment is calibrated and ready to use
Check for software updates
Rethink the location of frequently used equipment to enable socially distancing 
Sanitize lab phones and computer keyboards or touchscreens regularly
Take stock of reagents and their expiration dates
Give the lab a deep clean more frequently
Flush water lines, if necessary
Make sure safety devices, like eye wash stations and fire extinguishers, are clean and working

We are all excited to get back into the lab, so let’s make sure we can stay in the lab by following the guidance of experts and fellow scientists. Let’s be respectful of our own as well as our co-workers health and schedules and need for human interaction. And let’s do that safely. Let’s all make it through this pandemic, by being responsible and practicing the necessary safety measures. 




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