Getting Back to the Lab

Colleges and universities across the country face many questions about how to return to campus safely while the COVID-19 pandemic continues. Questions like, “Should we have face-to-face classes at all?” “Can we afford to go online-only?” and, most importantly, “How do we keep our students, faculty, and staff safe?” One such question institutions might not have considered, however, is “How do we get back into college research laboratories safely during a pandemic?”

Research labs are a crucial part of university life and an important way in which universities contribute to society. Some labs have of course remained open and working through the pandemic, especially labs focused on epidemiology and medicine. Most college labs and research facilities, however, have remained closed and shifted workers to working remotely where possible. Now, despite rising COVID-19 numbers across the United States, colleges and universities are facing pressure to reopen, including their labs.

Whether your institution elects to reopen research labs now or in a year, there are some ways to prepare and manage reopening these labs to mitigate risk and increase student, faculty, and staff safety. Of course, the only way to truly eliminate risk and keep everyone safe is to remain at home until proper testing and vaccine protocols are developed, but that is not likely a realistic goal for most institutions, especially private colleges and universities.

A Phased Approach

Reopening is not something to be rushed. Instead, colleges and universities should carefully plan a phased approach to reopen labs slowly and safely. The first step is to determine which labs and facilities are the highest priority and establish a schedule for when each lab should reopen. This prioritization should take into account the urgency of the studies being conducted in each lab, which labs are best equipped to reopen safely, the exposure risks posed by the research, what additional safety equipment is needed, etc.

The second step is to prepare each lab to allow researchers, students, and staff to work safely and socially distanced. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) suggests preparations for infection prevention based on an approach known as “the hierarchy of controls.” This hierarchy, developed by The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), moves from most effective and protective controls to least effective.

The most effective control is to eliminate potential hazards or processes. In other words, if there is a process or procedure that puts staff at risk of exposure, the best way to keep them safe is to completely eliminate that procedure or replace it with a procedure that doesn’t risk exposure. Not everything can be eliminated, of course, so the next level of control is to install “engineering controls.” Engineering controls protect staff by either removing hazardous elements (e.g., fume hoods) or by creating barriers between the hazard and the researcher. The least effective controls are administrative controls, where changes are made to how staff works (e.g., staggered shifts), or personal protective equipment (PPE). Another basic control recommended by the CDC is to implement extensive cleaning, sanitation, and disinfection practices to mitigate staff exposure.

NIOSH also recommends employing what they call “Prevention through Design” (PtD) when it comes to worker safety. The goal of PtD, according to the NIOSH and CDC website, is to “anticipate and design out hazards to workers in facilities, work methods and operations, processes, equipment, tools, products, new technologies, and the organization of work.” PtD is about designing, or redesigning, your lab to be as safe as possible along the controls hierarchy, especially utilizing engineering controls. While administrative and PPE controls are much cheaper in the short term than engineering controls, they are far less sustainable.

In the case of protecting lab workers from the spread of COVID-19, engineering controls, while often pricier up front, are much more effective and sustainable in the long term. The CDC recommends a variety of such controls. One generally easier change is adjusting how workspaces are organized and aligned so workers are six feet or more apart in all directions and so researchers are facing each other. Another important design fix is to build physical barriers, such as plexiglass dividers or plastic curtains, between workstations, especially where interactions between staff are less avoidable.

Additional controls might include installing hospital-grade air filtration units, fume hoods, and biological safety cabinets. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) recommends performing work in a properly maintained biosafety cabinet (BSC) when possible. BSCs use negative pressure and high-efficiency particulate arrestance (HEPA) filters to contain possible aerosol materials and protect workers. Such enhanced engineering controls help increase the effectiveness of administrative and PPE controls.

The third phase in reopening research laboratories is to start bringing back faculty, students, and staff in a planned manner. Any work that doesn’t require staff to be in the lab should still be done remotely. For all other work, establish work schedules and rotations to minimize the number of people on site at any time. Stagger shifts and breaks to limit unnecessary interactions. Remember that not all staff should return to work at the same time, but should have phased returns based on the priorities established in phase one.

Once lab personnel are back, the risk of exposure and infection increases, and so the final phase is establishing procedures and training for appropriate cleaning, sanitation, and disinfection practices. Labs should be well stocked with necessary PPE and cleaning and disinfection supplies. Cleaning merely removes dirt and germs from surfaces but does not kill germs. Proper disinfecting requires using chemicals to kill germs on surfaces, so disinfecting after cleaning can greatly lower the spread of infection.

Factors to Consider When Returning to the Lab

As you prepare to reopen labs and plan appropriate controls, the type of research being conducted in each lab will impact those choices. One important area to consider is how to make suitable accommodations for human-subject research. Social and physical distancing may not be possible for certain types of human subjects research, and so other controls need to be figured out. Where possible, human subjects research should be done remotely or through other electronically distanced means. When making changes to human subjects research, it is also likely necessary to make adjustments to Institutional Review Board (IRB) approvals for each project. Researchers may also need to make adjustments to their methodology to account for added controls.

Another question to consider in reopening campus research labs is whether to reopen even if your institution opts to remain closed or operate remotely for the foreseeable future. If labs are reopened when the rest of campus is closed, additional considerations must be made for safety and liability. This includes questions about what personnel will be required to return, will faculty and staff be able to opt out of returning, how graduate students are factored into these decisions, among many others.

While the best way to ensure the safety of a college or university’s students, faculty, and staff during the COVID-19 pandemic is to remain at home until proper testing and vaccine protocols are developed, institutions can take steps to safely reopen campus research laboratories. The decisions for how and when to reopen labs should prioritize personnel health and safety through a phased approach, following appropriate CDC guidelines. These decisions should also be made with the input of the research faculty, graduate students, and other stakeholders at these research labs to ensure reopening is tailored to each lab’s needs and everyone’s safety.

About the Author
Phineas Dowling is a PhD candidate in literature at Auburn University where he teaches literature and composition. His dissertation is on Scottish identity and British literature of the long eighteenth century. In addition to his scholarship, Phineas has a strong interest in pedagogy and university administration.