By Ayisha I. A. Malik
Revised Health and Safety initiatives need to be implemented across labs and research facilities to create a suitable work environment for returning employees as countries begin to relax rules around the COVID-19 lockdown.
As nations emerge from lockdown, we are entering a new reality with mere notions of past norms. The SARS-CoV-2 virus is still spreading through the population, and we recognise that it is not possible to eliminate the risk of COVID-19. However, suitable measures need to be put in place to ensure everyone returning to work can be as safe as possible; employers hold the responsibility to implement these changes and protect the health and safety of all returning workers. Workers also need to take responsibility to adhere to the new norms.
The COVID-19 pandemic caused a hurried closure of many scientific and research facilities around the world. While carefully orchestrated studies continued for vaccine research and other COVID-19 and pandemic related investigations, it was essential to close most other indoor research and test venues.
Research tends to be an ongoing and collaborative process with experiments spanning weeks, months, or even years. When it was announced that labs would need to wrap up their work and prepare for lockdown, hundreds of thousands of projects had to simply be abandoned.
Additionally, every research facility runs processes in parallel to enable efficient execution of core experiments such as maintenance of healthy cell-lines that can be put into use immediately when required. All these processes were also promptly shut down in preparation for the lockdown.
Medical experts and policy makers worked around the clock to figure out the steps needed to facilitate a safe return to the workplace. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) posted “decision tools” highlighting what organisations should consider before reopening. Additionally, as cleanrooms, wet labs, material development labs, and similar specialist testing rooms require continuous on-site collaboration, often with people in close proximity and multi-user equipment, a special set of instructions were also drafted to address their needs by the UK government services.
Most scientists are keen to get back to work to salvage and rebuild their experiments, but there are significant anxieties surrounding the return to the workplace. To alleviate these fears and to reach effective decisions quickly, the government urged risk assessment to be carried out in collaboration with employees, who use the facilities on a regular basis.
Everyone planning their return to work is still susceptible to COVID-19; however, it poses an added threat for certain demographics of the population. Decision makers can use the UK government or CDC guidelines to identify those who are clinically vulnerable and therefore, should continue to work from home.
Unlike many other professions, research science includes a lot of work that cannot be conducted remotely, but with technological advances, it is possible to remotely monitor and control many more processes now than it was before. Just like several communication apps that have found the limelight during the pandemic, remote access tools, such as MasterflexLive®, TraceableLive® and CPLive®, can be leveraged to access work safely from home.
Related article: Monitoring your lab with TraceableLive features and benefits
Despite being extremely contagious, COVID-19 does not always debilitate individuals, at least not instantly. Workers and visitors may well be going about their day with a budding infection in their lungs, shedding contagious particles into their surroundings. It is, therefore, crucial to screen and monitor developing symptoms and record contact between members of the workforce.
As fever is the first sign of many illnesses, screening body temperature of individuals entering a worksite could prevent the spread of the virus. Devices, such as the FDA-Cleared Non-contact IR Forehead Thermometers, are calibrated to accurately detect even a small change in body temperature – picking up on a fever before any other symptoms have a chance to manifest. It is also designed to work quickly and from a distance, offering protection for anyone tasked with recording temperature or managing footfall.
Monitoring body temperature at entry points may seem like the obvious answer to keeping an infection at bay, but it is just as likely for a fever to develop during a shift. Additional temperature checks throughout the day can help employers identify and isolate any member of staff, who develops symptoms during their working hours. Keeping accurate records of who every employee encounters at work can also help employers take action to prevent or control a potential local outbreak.
Anecdotal evidence as well as official notice from the National Health Service (NHS) highlight that not everybody develops the same symptoms from COVID-19, nor do they follow a designated timeline. Because of this, monitoring a fever alone may not be enough to eliminate the risk of an outbreak in the workplace. If an asymptomatic person escapes the screening process, they could potentially go days shedding high volumes of infectious particles into their surroundings. A definitive COVID-19 in-vitro diagnostic test can be used to examine those, suspected of exposure to the virus; allowing for quick containment of a potential outbreak.
The daily routine of researchers and testing staff mimic that of any other workplace. This means that although their work requires continuous close collaboration, the risk of contact increases significantly when it comes to communal and shared spaces. To maintain social distancing and prevent unnecessary crowding, the UK government suggests that employers consider staggering start and finish times for their workers. Additionally, increasing access points into buildings, with clearly marked entrances and exits, and strictly monitored unidirectional on-foot traffic could also alleviate any unwanted gatherings around the workplace.
However, the UK guidelines have highlighted that during an emergency, such as a fire or chemical spill, workers should evacuate the building as quickly as possible without the need to follow these social distancing rules. The risk of such incidents is significantly higher in facilities, where they run explosive experiments and handle dangerous chemicals. Therefore, supplying research and testing staff with masks and other suitable Personal Protection Equipment (PPE) could provide additional protection in the instance of an emergency.
One way to maximise social distancing within a lab would be to rearrange the layout of workstations and ensure team members are situated suitably far apart from each other; with benches either placed side-by-side or back-to-back. Although not explicitly mentioned in the guidelines, if space constrains do not allow for such an arrangement, the use of face shields could provide additional protection against respiratory particles during work.
Personal workstations can only minimise contact if they are reasonably self-sufficient and stocked with equipment that does not need to be shared. Small apparatus such as timers, thermometers, pipettes, hotplates, and microcentrifuges are already found on most workstations and adding items such as benchtop incubators, refrigerators and individual waste disposal units can not only reduce the need for sharing but also for moving around the lab too much. On the other hand, equipment that utilise IoT or IR technology, such as the Connected Suite of Masterflex® products, IR surface thermometers and touch-free balances can also reduce the need for multiple people handling the same equipment without providing individual units.
Scientists use the basic reproduction number (R0) to determine how contagious an illness is. It is important to note the effective R0 value is mapped using pathogen virulence, community susceptibility, environmental factors and modes of transmission. This means it can be influenced through external factors such as host immunity or social distancing. Research (Kampf et al., 2020) has uncovered that COVID-19 is spread through direct contact with respiratory droplets or indirect contact through common and high-touch surfaces. Social distancing and PPE use has been commissioned to minimise direct exposure while additional cleaning has been implemented to reduce the spread through surface contamination.
A lot of research (Doremalen, et al., 2020) has also been conducted to determine the survival rates of the SARS-CoV-2 on common surfaces and the World Health Organisation recently issued a study highlighting how PCR-based tests could be leveraged to quantitatively verify virus persistence on different surfaces. A fast-acting PCR kit and thermal cycler can be used to routinely investigate high-touch surfaces around the workplace; and determine insightful data on virus survival as well as information needed to modify and establish effective cleaning and disinfection routines.
Many scientists spend long hours indoors, which means despite social distancing efforts the air they breathe in could fill with respiratory particles over the course of the day if it is not properly circulated. The UK government instructs research facilities to check and adjust ventilation systems before employees return to work and make sure it is not automatically reduced due to lower occupancy levels.
Routinely using air sampling cassettes to collect airborne particulates such as mould, spores, pollen, insect parts, fibres, and skin cells can provide a direct and quantitative overview of organic and inorganic contaminants. This would not only be useful for monitoring the efficiency of ventilation systems but also make sure suitable measures are taken to ensure personnel safety.
According to the CDC, washing hands can keep you healthy and prevent the spread of respiratory and diarrheal infections. This has been the first port of call for COVID-19 prevention during this pandemic. Therefore, it is hardly surprising that provisions for proper hand hygiene are detailed in all back-to-work guidelines. It is important that workplaces are equipped with hand washing and drying facilities – soap, water and paper towels or electric hand dryers. When such washing necessities cannot be provided, high saturation alcohol-based hand sanitisers should be made accessible across multiple locations around the site.
A thorough cleaning routine is the next piece of the puzzle in keeping the COVID-19 infection from spreading through a workforce. A clear schedule, with frequent cleaning of communal spaces, work areas, and equipment between uses needs to be set and regularly revised, based on monitoring information and staff feedback. In case CVOID-19 cases are confirmed or suspected within a team, guidelines for thorough cleaning can also be found on the UK government website.
Determining similar cleaning and sanitisation processes for expensive equipment that cannot be washed down also needs to be established. Additionally, all members of staff could be given disinfectant wipes to clean buttons, levers and surfaces of shared machinery before and after each use.
A recent example of a global pandemic is the Influenza (H1N1) pandemic of 1918 that washed over the globe and claimed millions of lives in three waves. The virus evolved and caused a second, albeit less severe, pandemic in 2009. As we experience the first wave of COVID-19 lessen, we must remember that despite insistent research into the pathogen and the disease, there is still much we do not know about it. There is an imminent risk of a second peak; and until we have an effective vaccine against the SARS-CoV-2 virus, we must take all feasible precautions to protect ourselves and those near and dear to us.
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