Managing risk in the lab at the times of coronavirus

In the UK, we are waiting for good news to reopen our laboratories. Well, not ‘waiting’ but getting ready. It might be in two weeks or two months but we have to be ready because if we will be ‘back to normal’, we will have new outbreaks. In science, we are lucky as we are already trained to manage risk. However, most scientists in the UK have a conflictual relationship with health and safety procedures that are often perceived (probably rightly) as overly bureaucratic and can drive people away from good practice. I am lucky as I deal with wonderful people both locally at the Cancer Unit and centrally at University on the regard to safety, at least in those areas I have responsibilities.

In my opinion, this is the moment to restructure how we handle safety. On the one hand, formal risk assessment is very important to identify the source of hazards. It is easy to imagine we can work safely but there are some topics that are very tricky. For example, we are discussing how to deal with fire doors… we can’t keep them wedged open because of fire safety but it would be better to not close them to avoid touching surfaces unnecessarily. There are perhaps solutions that avoid any risk, for example providing hand sanitizers on either side of the door or reverting previous rules and enforce the use of gloves in any area of the labs, or install automatic (fire) doors as soon as possible. What about air conditioning? We need it in a modern building with sensitive equipment but should we do any change? Are they safe? What about cell culture? The other day I joked about infected cell cultures in CL1 laboratories? Wait… it was a joke but then – out of curiosity – I realized that coronaviruses, this included, can propagate in several mammalian cell lines (they express ACE2 and most of them are not killed by the virus). Is this an issue? I assume it is not as it is unlikely we contaminate cultures (we work in aseptic conditions) and cells do not generate aerosols we can breathe. But I wished to mention this just to make a point: it is worth thinking deeply about how work will be when we return in the laboratories to identify possible issues, without paranoia and without panicking, but proactively and scientifically.

However, paperwork never protected us. It helps to identify issues and to protect us legally. There is a set of rules that have been gradually abandoned in favour of PPEs and engineering measures to manage risk and I believe we have to retrain people using those rules. It will be impossible to make the world 100% safe from coronavirus, certainly in the short term. We can, however, manage risk by changing behaviours to make it negligible but we need to be prepared and everyone has to comply.

Let me do two examples, not specific to viral work. Even just twenty years ago, for some of us laser safety was just removing any reflecting surfaces from your body and the environment (no rings, badges, other jewellery, no wall mirrors in an optics lab etc) and changing your behaviour: never align your eyes with the likely direction of the laser. This meant, for example, that a researcher would mature the instinct of turning the head always away from the optical table when picking something from the floor. Those were the times when accidents would still happen at a certain frequency because good laboratory practises without PPE relies on a person never do a mistake. PPEs should protect us from our mistakes but once you wear protective gear, once you feel shielded from the hazards, behaviour will change back to normal.

Another example is tissue culture. It is a fair amount of years I do not do TC work in person but, sometimes, when I get a coffee at the Hutch canteen and I pay, I pass on top of my mug and my brain signal me not to do it. Under hood, we avoid to pass over open flasks to minimize the risk of contamination (of the cultures). Again, some of us might have worked perfectly aseptically and safely with no PPE in the past.

I DO NOT advise to drop PPEs or risk assessments, do not misunderstand. The only point I want to make is that changes in behaviour such as social distancing and enhanced hand hygiene will be very important, more important than anything else to come back to work safely. We need to be careful in retraining ourselves. Again, without paranoia or panic. Other than doing ridiculous elbow bumps to replace shaking hands, a smile and a greeting will do. Giving way to people to maintain distance in close environments, planning how to move around cramped laboratories, how to reach instrumentation, when and how to clean hands or use PPE, but also very practical and trivial things such as the use of toilets or where and when to have a lunch or a break, how to reach the workplace might be more challenging. Challenging – not impossible, at least in most cases.

I have been very supportive of lockdowns. Among other things, this period is permitting us to exercise social distancing and train on how to handle materials we buy or we get delivered at home. This is valuable time if and only if you are actually using this opportunity to actively prepare for a life with COVID. We all hope that this virus will burn itself out soon. However, at the moment it seems unlikely and therefore the keyword is one: preparedness.

Do not do the mistakes that several people in leadership have done. They were not prepared to manage this pandemic despite they knew it would happen soon or late. They were not prepared to instruct us for timely societal changes. Are they now really prepared for the next phase, i.e. the management of life with SARS-CoV-2 endemic? I hope in more clarity and transparency. However, to be fair, it would have been difficult not to do mistakes.

If you did not do this already, brainstorm with your team and communicate to your managers what you might want to plan. I also advise having clear and shared rules. As safety will be based quite significantly on behavioural changes, conflicts at the workplace are also likely. Although we are all feeling closer to each other and more helpful, there are always the zealots and the neglectful. Those that are worried about anything and those that are worried about nothing. We need to reassure the former and letting them perhaps working only off the lab (whenever possible) if they cannot handle the situation. We should dialogue with the latter to explain we have to abide by a set of shared rules and, if they do not comply, we should get them off the lab. And in any case, help categories at risk and colleagues that might struggle with mental health.

If you did not do this already, it is time to prepare. Not business as usual but with a new norm as soon as the government will permit us to resume work until this virus will be defeated or at least tamed. For the same reason that most of us are staying at home, helping keyworkers to do their job, we’ll soon be called back to work. Not just for ourselves but again for those amazing people who have kept working in difficult situations in the streets, hospitals, care homes, shops. In fact, it is our duty to share the burden of a society that cannot remain on the shoulders of only a fraction of us. However, we shall do this not in irresponsible ways, but with absolute preparedness. This applies to governments and public institutions but it does apply also to each of us.

Author: Alessandro

Please visit my website to know more about me and my research http://www.quantitative-microscopy.org

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