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Critical Disaster Planning Lessons for Laboratories

The COVID-19 pandemic offers an opportunity for lab leaders to reevaluate their preparation strategies

Tracy Durnan, MBA

Tracy Wieder has worked in the field of biomedical research for 30 years, starting as a lab technician, then moving into lab manager roles, lab director roles, and finally into her current role overseeing all research laboratories at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and is a recognized expert on disaster preparedness and safety.

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Pandemics are a reality of life, and have been for a very long time. In just this century alone, there have been no less than six pandemics. It is important to take stock of the lessons learned from the work disruptions caused by COVID-19, so that leaders are better prepared for laboratory operations, continuity, and recovery during the next pandemic. The tips outlined below will help lab leaders to be more resilient in the face of other disasters. 

Planning for disruptions in staffing

Ensure all staff have access to computer equipment, high-speed internet, and comfortable desk chairs should they need to work from home for an extended period. Create policies now to allow staff to take computer equipment and desk chairs home and conduct work from home drills every six months to anticipate problems in advance and correct them. Quality desk chairs are an important consideration as most staff do not have these already at home. Disasters can cause the need to work from home not only in a case such as a pandemic, but many natural disasters can also cause severe damage to buildings, leaving staff without a workplace. Preparing in advance will make getting operations set up from home, when needed, much easier.

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“Establish a leadership succession plan in advance to aid in creating stability, even if several members of the leadership team are unable to work.”

Store all computer records on cloud-based systems so they can easily be accessed by staff from home. This should include not only data and records, but also protocols and standard operating procedures, to ensure continuity when the lab reopens. 

Managing staff shortages

Evaluating critical lab functions and what is needed to maintain these functions will allow you to form a plan to get the most important operations back up and running as quickly as possible following a disaster. Cross-training of staff is very important so that staff can be reassigned, if needed, to these most critical functions to get these operations back up and running more quickly during the recovery phase post-disaster. 

Another effective strategy is to outsource critical functions when possible and necessary. Consider in advance which functions could be outsourced and identify options to do so. This will allow laboratory leadership to quickly move on arranging for outsourcing these functions and then focus staff on other critical functions that cannot effectively be outsourced.

Supply chain delays

The supply chain around the world was severely affected by COVID-19. Staff shortages causing shipping delays were only the beginning. As COVID-19 testing ramped up, PCR machines used for COVID testing, as well as supplies associated with PCR, were suddenly in short supply. Once the vaccines became available, the -80°C and -20°C freezers used to store the vaccines were suddenly on very long backorders.

To add to the already serious supply chain disruptions, a massive container ship became wedged in the Suez Canal this March, blocking all traffic through one of the busiest waterways in the world. Once the boat was freed, the delays caused by this disruption continued for several weeks. 

Supply chain experts are predicting a continued “ripple effect” of supply chain shortages due to the pandemic. Here are a couple strategies for managing inventory and critical supplies:

  • Work with vendors and your organization’s purchasing department to source supplies that are in short supply or are expected to be in short supply. 
  • Order all supplies well in advance of running out of them in case items are unexpectedly on long backorders. 
  • When possible, order large amounts of supplies in advance that are expected to be affected by a disaster.

Leadership succession plan

A succession plan is important if several members of leadership are unable to work. This could happen not only in the event of a pandemic where leadership staff are sick, but also in the case of a disaster that cuts off sections of the community from being able to commute because of flooding, forest fires, or other dangerous conditions. Communication may also be cut off as a result of a disaster. Establish a leadership succession plan in advance to aid in creating stability, even if several members of the leadership team are unable to work. 

Space management

To allow for social distancing during pandemics, staff can work in shifts. This allows work to continue while giving staff during each shift more space to spread out. This idea can also be expanded to use during other disasters where some lab space may be too damaged to use for a period of time, reducing the total lab space available for staff. 

Designating specific staff to work from home and staff to be at work is another good way to create more space when it is limited due to a disaster. Many lab functions cannot be carried out from home, but there will always be some degree of administrative duties, training, and educational activities that laboratory staff can do off-site.

When it comes to space, think outside the “box.” During emergencies, it is important that divisions, 

departments, and even institutions work together to coordinate space needs for critical functions to benefit all. Space options do not need to be limited to the space that your group currently occupies. In writing disaster preparedness plans, consider where space may exist that could be utilized for critical functions, even if that space “belongs” to someone else.

 Pandemics vary from other disasters because during a pandemic, staff can still potentially access their labs and power will not be lost. Advanced planning is important to ensure operations don’t come crashing to a halt when faced with the next disaster, whether it be a pandemic, fire, hurricane, earthquake, etc. Getting things in order now prevents your response at the time of a disaster from being strewn with confusion and lost samples. A proper plan will also guide you through the important task of preparing for, and recovering from, any type of unexpected event.