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COVID-19 Laboratory Challenges and Lessons: Part 2

COVID-19 Laboratory Challenges and Lessons: Part 2

City of Tacoma Environmental Services Laboratory maintains safety as top priority while executing increased workload

Scott D. Hanton
Stuart Magoon, ESL manager.

The COVID-19 pandemic has impacted laboratories across the world. Some laboratories have been labeled non-essential and face the challenges of being forcibly idled. Other laboratories have been labeled essential and face the challenge of keeping workers safe and delivering during this crisis. This article is the second of three interviews with leaders of laboratories that have been labeled essential and have developed interesting and important ways to address the challenges they face during this pandemic. View part 1 here, and part 3 here.

The City of Tacoma Environmental Services Laboratory (ESL) supports two wastewater treatment plants, 45 pumping stations, two Superfund sites, and more than 700 miles of sewer pipe. The treatment plants clean about 10 billion gallons of wastewater each year for the 250,000 residents of greater Tacoma, WA. The lab has a staff of 17 people who specialize in the analytical testing of wastewater and surface water. Stuart Magoon is the manager for ESL.


ESL response to the COVID-19 crisis 

Q: What are some of the key challenges faced by your lab during the COVID-19 crisis?

A: The biggest challenges are keeping staff safe and healthy while working on essential services for the people of Tacoma and living with the level of uncertainty driven by the crisis.

Q: What are some things your lab is doing to address these challenges?

A: There are several things that we are doing, including:

  1. Adhering to the CDC recommendations with particular emphasis on the six-foot distancing. We are fortunate to have a building designed for many more people than currently on staff. We have sufficient lab space to maintain six feet of separation between staff for normal lab work.
  2. Reinforced the message of frequent handwashing and the use of masks. Fortunately, lab staff are very used to wearing personal protective equipment and washing their hands often.
  3. Implemented flexible schedules that stagger start times by four hours to limit overlap.  Combined with about one-third of the staff doing at least some telecommuting, it keeps population density to less than 50 percent.
  4. Transitioned all team meetings to video meetings with Microsoft Teams or Zoom.
  5. Adopted DocuSign for most reports, SOPs, and QA documents to reduce the need to share paper or use community printers.
  6. Worked with janitorial staff to implement twice-daily wiping of common touch surfaces such as refrigerators and door knobs and provide hand sanitizer and disinfectant.
  7. Provided extra paid leave to ensure staff don’t come to work feeling sick.  

Q: What is something you are particularly proud of that your lab has accomplished during the crisis?

A: I’m proud of how they are working as a team and helping each other as needed. We have kept our test quality high and our sample turnarounds fast. Despite the crisis, we have met 100 percent of our client due dates.

Q: What is something that you changed due to the COVID-19 crisis that you think should be retained in the new normal?

A: The overall flexibility of when, where, and how work gets accomplished. People are proving they are adaptable and resourceful, and the data demonstrates that work is getting done in a timely fashion with very good quality. The relationship of trust established between our staff and the city will help keep flexibility and telecommuting going forward.

Q: What is the most important thing you've learned about your lab during the COVID-19 crisis?

A: It’s been about adaptability and resiliency. There has been tremendous disruption in peoples’ personal lives with businesses closing, schools closing, and severe restrictions on activities. It was a cascade of devastating events that spawned anxiety and mounting uncertainty. Our people quickly adapted with each day’s change and remained focused on executing good science.

Q: What are some things you think your lab has done well to make you feel safe at work during the COVID-19 crisis?  

A: Our staff have significant experience working with raw sewage samples and they take safety seriously, which has really helped as this pandemic erupted. All of the engineering controls, such high air exchange rates, help staff realize the safe areas to work in the lab.  

Q: What advice do you have for other labs about dealing with the issues driven by the COVID-19 crisis?

A: Adapt, be flexible, and most of all, clearly address staff concerns. Solicit input and be open to trying new approaches with schedules. My primary concern has been ensuring our staff stay healthy—we have to stay healthy to stay relevant and reliable.

Summary

ESL must continue to test water quality despite the pandemic. By keeping staff healthy, providing flexibility in hours, schedules, and place of work, and being flexible to adapt to the changing circumstances, they continue to deliver their critical function for the city of Tacoma.


For the past eight years, Stuart Magoon has served as an assistant division manager with the City of Tacoma’s Science and Engineering Division. He is responsible for the coordination and production of all analysis conducted at the Environmental Services Laboratory. He manages 16 staff in a highly technical, scientifically, and culturally diverse work environment. He oversees all laboratory functions and is ultimately responsible for lab timeliness, method development, quality assurance, health and safety, and staff development and training.

Stuart has more than 30 years of experience in the environmental laboratory business in both the private and public sector. Prior to working at Tacoma Environmental Services Laboratory, Stuart worked at the State of Washington Department of Ecology for 24 years; for 13 of those years he served as the laboratory director.