The COVID-19 pandemic has certainly disrupted our lives during the past three years. We now know more about working from home and the supply chain than we ever thought we would. The pandemic also highlighted significant gaps in laboratory disaster preparedness plans that need to be addressed before the next pandemic.
Here are eight key improvements to make to your laboratory disaster preparedness plans:
1. Identify your lab’s most critical functions
Identify your laboratory’s critical functions and create a plan to assign staff to these functions should a disaster arise. Because you do not know in advance who will or will not be able to reach the lab during future disasters, allow for some flexibility when assigning staff to each critical function. Share the plan with those lab staff and add it to your disaster preparedness plan. This will allow staff to identify any additional training required to support their assigned critical functions before a disaster event.
"Cross-training staff to perform all laboratory functions has become a critical part of laboratory disaster plans."
2. Conduct cross-training
Cross-training staff to perform all laboratory functions has become a critical part of laboratory disaster plans. We no longer have the luxury of siloing staff to singular functions. All staff need to know how to perform all critical functions in the laboratory, so that if there is a disaster that results in reduced staffing, your lab’s most critical functions can continue to operate as long as some staff are able to work.
Pandemics are not the only disasters that can result in reduced staff numbers. Severe storms, earthquakes, blizzards, and mud slides could also prevent staff from accessing the laboratory.
3. Practice work from home drills
During a disaster that requires staff to work from home, staff will almost certainly encounter technical problems when connecting to work resources. Conducting work from home drills twice a year can be extraordinarily valuable in working out these technological hurdles ahead of time. Consider designating two days a year, spaced by six months, for employees who are candidates to work from home during a disaster to do so using the equipment they would use to work from home during a disaster.
"Lab leaders should create policies that support sick workers staying home."
By regularly conducting these drills and addressing any critical problems in advance, these employees will be ready to hit the ground running and be productive during a disaster. As an added advantage, during these drills you may discover lab roles and functions that can generally be performed from home that you hadn’t previously considered.
4. Have zero tolerance for sick workers
Americans have a strong work ethic that often results in workers coming to work when sick. Many workers, as well as their supervisors, consider this to be not only acceptable but even admirable behavior. The pandemic has certainly demonstrated that it’s time for a change in work culture.
Spreading illness to our coworkers is simply not acceptable. You may be able to easily fight off a cold, but what about your coworker? For example, they may have a vulnerable family member living with them who is highly susceptible to respiratory infections. Thus, your cold could potentially cause dangerous illness in others. It’s not worth the risk<em dash>if you are sick, stay home.
Lab leaders should create policies that support sick workers staying home. Cross-training staff can ensure needed coverage when employees are home sick, easing the pressure to come to work when ill.
5. Enforce proper hand washing
We learned a lot about the proper way to effectively wash our hands during the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as the importance of good hand hygiene for preventing the spread of illnesses. Good hand hygiene is here to stay! All staff should practice washing their hands properly, particularly after touching public or common areas, including gas and liquid nitrogen tank valves, common benches, and common lab equipment.
Ensure all staff are using proper hand washing technique: Hands should be washed for at least 20 seconds, paying special attention to often-overlooked areas, such as the backs of the hands, in between the fingers, and under the fingernails.
6. Identify high-risk procedures
Every laboratory disaster preparedness plan should include a section listing which techniques should NOT be used in the laboratory if staff are working solo. Staff should avoid performing high-risk procedures alone in the lab. If you must perform high-risk procedures when you are alone in the lab, notify your supervisor and other staff of your plans, so they can check in with you to ensure your safety.
7. Plan for supply chain shortages
Most lab professionals have had to learn more about the laboratory supply chain in the past three years than they ever thought necessary. Planning for the possibility that supply orders could take longer to arrive than usual has become part of the new normal.
Do your best to always have extra supplies on hand, including a sufficient inventory of critical supplies that will last until a new order can be received. Assume all orders will take longer than usual to arrive and order supplies well before you run out. Unfortunately, we can no longer count on overnight rush orders.
"Assume that the next epidemic or pandemic will require a period of social distancing to avoid spreading illness."
8. Designate space for social distancing
In your laboratory disaster preparedness plans, assume that the next epidemic or pandemic will require a period of social distancing to avoid spreading illness. A section detailing how space will be assigned when labs need extra space for social distancing is important to avoid trying to work out these details at the last minute.
In general, lab space should be considered more fluid than it has been in the past to allow healthy staff to use any appropriate, available space for social distancing. Teams that have very few staff on site due to illness should be expected to allow other groups to share their space when social distancing is required.
Speak with neighboring labs to determine how to best expand the space assigned to each lab when the need arises. And don’t forget to consider available equipment when looking for lab spaces that could potentially be shared.