Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business

Best Practices for Limiting Access to Your Lab

Security has always been one of the most important—and often challenging—issues facing laboratory managers.

by Gorm Tuxen
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Choosing the Best Laboratory Access Control System for Your Lab

Laboratory work is often fragile and susceptible to contamination if outside impurities are introduced into workspaces. Likewise, the work that’s done in laboratories is often complex and can easily be impacted by people who aren’t authorized to be in the lab. That’s why it’s so important to make sure that only approved individuals have access to certain areas of the lab to maintain its integrity.

For facilities handling patients’ medical labs, privacy is a paramount concern. Medical labs have a legal and ethical obligation to protect patients’ confidentiality. Likewise, when labs are conducting classified research for the government, the risks posed by the theft of classified information are substantial. The information present in these labs is just as sensitive, and the repercussions of stolen information can be far-reaching and dramatic.

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Security is just as important in research settings, where unauthorized personnel can cause serious complications, either by inadvertently contaminating materials or through corporate or activist espionage. When unauthorized access undermines research, the implications for both the efficacy of the work and the lab’s finances can be significant.

These concerns can even have public safety implications. Labs, particularly those that are doing controversial work, are sometimes the focus of saboteurs and vandals. It’s a lab manager’s worst nightmare: the thought that terrorists or political activists could break into a lab and steal hazardous materials or other potentially dangerous substances. Events like these can pose potentially disastrous public safety and health risks to citizens.

Finally, the financial implications of lab security can’t be overstated. The typical lab has equipment that could be worth hundreds of thousands—even millions—of dollars. Not only is the equipment expensive, but quite often it is also highly specialized, and replacing it could take months. Every lab must have security protocols in place to prevent the theft or alteration of mission-critical or valuable equipment.

For all of these reasons, security is an overriding concern for lab managers. One of the most important security tools at their disposal is access control equipment to provide and limit entry to only those who are authorized to enter. In most labs, access control is provided by radio frequency identification (RFID) cards that, when paired with readers, provide hands-free access to laboratories. The RFID cards are generally placed in employee identification cards or used as stand-alone cards, and they are paired with an individual’s data so that when a card is used, in addition to providing access, it also makes a record of that person’s having entered or left a particular area within a lab.

This record-keeping function is particularly important if an unanticipated security event occurs. It allows lab managers to instantly determine who entered and left the lab during the event and whether that person was authorized to be present. The data can be used to identify individuals who are likely to have been involved in the security breach, and it can also alert lab managers as to who may be at risk if the event involved dangerous substances.

There are two primary advantages of RFID over swipe cards and traditional locks: speed and sterility. RFID cards provide speed because they can be read from as far away as 30 feet. Lab personnel who are entering and exiting rooms don’t need to stop to swipe a card or punch in a key code because the door will unlock or, if automated, open for them as they approach it. In addition to speed, this also provides added convenience for staff who are pushing or carrying equipment or other materials.

Sterility is another equally important benefit. Sanitation is an important issue for all labs since extraneous matter can undermine tests and experiments. RFID cards are worn on identification badges or stored in pockets, so unlike with swipe cards and key locks, staff don’t have to handle them in order to use them. As a result, there is no risk of contamination from RFID cards when entering a clean area.

For all of these reasons, RFID is the secure access tool of choice for many labs. The big question facing lab managers is what type of RFID card is right for each individual lab.

UHF vs. microwave technology

There are two primary standards for access control readers: UHF and microwave. Each offers a distinct set of advantages, and in choosing a standard, administrators need to take into consideration their own needs and resources.

UHF—or ultra-high frequency—credentials can be worn on lanyards or access card clips. Current RFID Gen2 standard operates in the 860-960 MHz band. What does this mean? These systems can achieve relatively large reading distances, which provides much more convenience for lab workers who don’t have time to stop and wait for doors to unlock to admit them into the lab or permit them to leave.

And unlike transponders, this reading distance can be achieved without batteries. UHF readers are unobtrusive and can be mounted strategically throughout labs to provide access to and from secure areas.

Anyone whose responsibilities extend to vehicle security should already be familiar with UHF technology since these readers have long been the standard for vehicle identification. UHF readers and “pucks” can be found in most vehicles that routinely enter and exit secure facilities.

This same technology has also been gaining popularity for building security in recent years. There are a number of reasons for this trend. First, because UHF readers are available in the form of credit card-sized access cards, they can be conveniently used for personal identification. Whether worn on a lanyard or clipped to a pocket, the UHF reader will usually be able to read the card at a distance of 12 feet or so, which provides plenty of time for doors to open before the staff member gets to the doorway.

One requirement of UHF technology is that the readers require line-of-sight. As a result, they won’t work if they are stored in pockets or briefcases. In certain environments this can be a positive factor, as the requirement of having the badge visible at all times improves overall protocol compliance and adds to the visual identification of properly credentialed individuals.

Also, not all UHF technology on the market supports encryption, and with the sophistication that is being demonstrated by data thieves and the information-grabbing technologies on which they rely, this may present a liability that makes UHF less suitable for certain labs. However, in recent years, low-cost UHF tags featuring an embedded security algorithm have been developed, and these high-security UHF tags are now available, so it is important to identify which tags you acquire.

The second common RFID standard available to lab managers revolves around microwave readers and credentials working in the 2.45 GHz frequency range. Like the UHF card, the microwave card emits a signal that, when recognized by the appropriate reader, provides access to appropriate locations in a lab. The microwave technology has a more robust signal, which can be an advantage in certain laboratory environments where there is the possibility of frequency interference from instruments and equipment. Another advantage of microwave cards is that they don’t require a line of sight. They provide more flexibility because they will work even if stored in a pocket or briefcase.

Both technologies can also be used to identify individuals, assets, and vehicles. Therefore, either is an acceptable choice for staff who require access to garage areas, use a vehicle in the course of their work, or use carts or trays for transporting items.

The primary disadvantage of microwave reader technology is price. Microwave readers and credentials tend to be more expensive (by about 50 percent) than UHF technology, so they may not be the best choice for labs that require many cards or that don’t require the added levels of service they offer. The credentials are also a bit larger and may seem cumbersome to staff who are used to wearing their identification cards.

Because staff identification can be coupled with vehicle ID, a microwave system can also record which staff were driving which vehicles on a given day. So, in addition to regulating entry to and exit from particular sections of a lab, microwave technology can also regulate vehicle access for the entire campus. This increased level of flexibility can be valuable on a campus with a significant amount of vehicle traffic.

More control

The post-9/11 world is more security-conscious than ever, and lab managers need to be particularly attentive to security concerns. The work that’s done in labs—whether for testing or research purposes—is often sensitive, and the materials, data, and equipment must be zealously protected. Radio frequency identification cards play an important role in lab security, restricting access to research and testing areas solely to authorized personnel.

When it comes to selecting the right RFID system, labs have choices to help them address all of their unique requirements. It’s important for lab administrators to understand exactly what they need their RFID security system to accomplish and how their needs fit within their security budgets. Then they can choose the perfect system to meet those needs.