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Photo of a clinical laboratory professional wearing PPE using a wheelchair at the laboratory bench.
Standards like those arising from the Americans with Disabilities Act are designed to ensure that people with a variety of mobility or sensory needs can access built spaces—but they rarely go far enough.
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Advancing Accessibility in Clinical Laboratories

A guide to ensuring that everyone can safely and effectively use the clinical laboratory

Michael Schubert, PhD

Michael Schubert, PhD, is a veteran science and medicine communicator. He holds graduate degrees in biochemistry and molecular biology with a research focus on chromatin structure and function and has written on subjects from subspeciality pathology to fictional science. In addition to writing and editing, he is co-director of the Digital Communications Fellowship in Pathology and professor of professional practice in academic writing at ThinkSpace Education, the University of Chichester.

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Published:Jul 09, 2024
|4 min read
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Advocates of the clinical lab are always welcoming to those intrigued by a laboratory career. But what about the lab itself? For many, the biggest barrier isn’t interest or awareness—it’s being able to move around the laboratory, use its equipment, and maintain its safety protocols.

Standards like those arising from the Americans with Disabilities Act are designed to ensure that people with a variety of mobility or sensory needs can access built spaces—but they rarely go far enough. For example, the standards might allow wheelchair users to navigate a laboratory building but not reach an instrument set up on a desk. They might require fire alarms to have both audible and visible components but not temperature alarms on lab equipment. Some requirements, such as sound or lighting adaptations for sensory processing disorders or ventilation and filtration needs for immunocompromised individuals, aren’t covered at all. 

So, what can clinical labs do to mitigate access inequities?

Physical barriers in the lab

When considering accessibility, most people’s first thought is, “How might a mobility-impaired person navigate a space?” Common barriers in older buildings include narrow entryways and corridors, heavy or difficult-to-operate doors, and absent or inadequate elevators. 

In laboratories, these challenges can quickly multiply. Aisles may be too narrow for wheelchair users to share space with others; benches may be too tall or deep to reach from a seated position; instruments may be impossible to operate for reasons ranging from a heavy lid to a poorly placed display.

Experts Janet S. Baum and Louis J. DiBerardinis highlight several design considerations that can increase laboratories’ accessibility for those with mobility needs:

Instead of fixed laboratory benches with drawer or cupboard storage, they recommend adjustable-height workstations that are shallow enough for easy reach and include roll-under space. They also highlight specific instruments, such as sinks or fume hoods, whose height and depth often increase risk for disabled operators. These design principles extend to all areas of the lab—can a mobility-impaired person quickly reach your eyewash stations or safety showers? Can a person with poor grip or strength open your doors and operate your faucets? Can a wheelchair user reach your light switches and outlets?

Laboratorians with sensory impairments also face challenges in physical spaces. 

Lighting may be inappropriate or inadequate for people with vision concerns, especially in older buildings or less-used spaces. Color contrasts may not allow blind or visually impaired laboratorians to spot entryways, stairs, work surfaces, or specific pieces of equipment. Those with hearing impairments may struggle in large or open-concept laboratories and may benefit from acoustic panels in areas with high levels of noise or traffic.

Beyond the build

Few accessibility guidelines include requirements for movable items such as furnishings or lab instruments—which can lead to trouble with large items like freezers or floor centrifuges. These should be placed in areas all users can access, taking care to leave exits and thoroughfares clear. (Don’t forget to check which way doors open to avoid creating temporary blockages.) 

Items that may require rapid access, such as fire extinguishers or first aid kits, should be installed in clear, reachable places that don’t interfere with travel paths. 

Once placed, avoid moving furniture or apparatus—especially emergency equipment—to ensure that people with low vision can navigate easily. Consider adding high-visibility paint or textured tape to signpost common routes and label the edges of furniture and instruments.

Every laboratory should have at least one accessible workstation that can be raised for standing users, lowered for smaller or seated users, and incorporates additional space for adaptive equipment—such as a customized chair or standing frame—or a service animal. 

The work surface should be large enough both the laboratory work setup and any other items users may need, such as reaching or grasping tools, large-format monitors, or communication devices. Ideally, it should also have backup power so that these tools remain functional during power interruptions. Adapted laboratory equipment should remain at the user’s workstation.

Lab signage should use plain language and be easily readable from a variety of heights and distances; if possible, signage should also include pictorial guidance and Braille text. Laboratorians with low or no vision may also benefit from large-text or Braille versions of documents like test protocols and safety guidelines. 

For training and demonstrations that take place in the lab, consider how people can be positioned to ensure that everyone can see, hear, and understand what they are learning—and, if that presents difficulties, look for adaptations that increase access. For instance, you may want to mount mirrors above the demonstration area, provide a sign language interpreter (especially if the demonstrator’s face is obscured), or record the training for later review. 

Never hesitate to ask if there are adjustments or accommodations that would improve the experiences of disabled lab staff—and be prepared to listen to the answers you receive.

Safety considerations

Personal protective equipment is often non-negotiable in the clinical lab—but not everyone can easily use it. If possible, offer alternative options that work for a wide range of users. For instance, consider offering both earloop and headstrap options for face masks, sourcing adapted gloves for those who can’t use standard ones, or providing aprons or gowns to people who cannot be appropriately fitted for lab coats. 

Some laboratorians may also benefit from additional protection, such as face shields for those whose position or stature places their heads near bench height.

Especially in settings where people may work alone, warning signals should have multiple formats—for instance, audible alarms, flashing lights, vibrations, or even mobile phone notifications. Manually operated alarms should be easy to see and reach. 

Importantly, establish plans in advance for how disabled laboratorians will manage safety incidents. If a hazardous spill occurs, how might a visually impaired person safely manage the spill or exit the space? If the spill affects a mobility device, how can it be cleaned and what will the user do meanwhile? How will service animals be managed during a safety incident—and does the lab environment present any hazards specific to the animal?

The benefits are worth the effort

Planning a clinical laboratory everyone can use may seem complicated, but the benefits are worth the effort. 

Accessible labs broaden the potential talent pool and ensure that lab staff can continue their work even if their health or disability circumstances change. They also contribute to greater overall inclusivity, which can increase innovation, enhance services, and even reduce the likelihood of burnout among staff members. 

When every laboratorian has the same access and opportunities, the clinical lab becomes better for patients and professionals alike.