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How to Create a Laboratory Disaster Plan

How to Create a Laboratory Disaster Plan

Having a plan in place in advance lessens the burden post-disaster

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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Preparing for disasters in advance is critical to ensure your lab can successfully recover when disaster strikes. With a plan, you can preserve samples, data, and jobs, and lessen anxiety. 

During the recovery phase after a disaster, resources such as supplies and staff are often limited. Having a plan already in place allows institutes to determine which functions are most urgent and allocate limited resources accordingly to get the most critical functions back up and running as quickly as possible.

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Using the following 10 tips will go a long way in helping you to write a disaster preparedness plan that will protect your lab from disasters of all types.

1. Take photos

Photos of all equipment are important for filing insurance claims. Make sure to include a wide-angle shot of each room, showing it was in good condition at the time the photos were taken to prove to insurance companies that the space and equipment were affected as a result of the disaster. 

2. Store all data on the cloud

Hard drives can be damaged or destroyed in a disaster, so storing data as well as protocols and standard operating procedures on the cloud will ensure continuity in lab functions after the disaster has passed. To ensure the lab’s computer records are always protected, make it a habit to save everything to the cloud, rather than to your computer’s hard drive. 

3. Keep lab contact lists updated and ensure all lab members have current copies

This information will be used to contact your lab teammates after a disaster to check on each person, see if anyone needs anything, and communicate other important instructions about returning to work. If someone cannot be contacted after 24 hours, call the authorities and tell them the person’s last known location. In addition, communication prior to a known disaster striking is critical to prepare the lab. Post-disaster communication is crucial to determine when staff can re-enter the lab and who is in a position to get to the lab to get critical functions operational again as quickly as possible.

4. Maintain current chemical and sample lists and place a copy of the chemical inventory outside of the lab

In the case of a fire, due to safety concerns, many firefighters will not enter labs to fight the fire if they do not know what kinds of chemicals are onsite. This is why it is important to keep a copy of the chemical inventory list outside of the lab entrance. A lab may not have any hazardous reagents at all, but without that inventory, firefighters could be forced to not enter the lab. This could result in the contents of a lab being completely lost in a fire when they otherwise could have been saved. The chemical and samples lists will again be used during recovery efforts to estimate the monetary loss to the lab for the purpose of filing insurance claims. 

5. Ensure all freezers are plugged into emergency power outlets

Emergency power outlets are powered by backup generators. These generators will function, in most cases, when the standard power goes out. Generally, these backup generators give labs an extra 72 hours of power after standard power is lost, but you should check with your own institution to verify how long your backup generators will last. However, these generators can be destroyed in a disaster and, if the effects of the disaster last more than 72 hours and it is not safe for a person to add fuel to the generators, then these generators will go out as well, eliminating all power to the lab. For this reason, it is important when creating your disaster preparedness plan to think about what samples you keep in your lab’s -80C freezers that could be moved into liquid nitrogen for temporary storage until power returns. Since liquid nitrogen does not require power to keep samples cold, it is the most efficient way to keep samples safe in the event of a disaster. 

6. Keep backup liquid nitrogen on hand

Many labs store their critical samples in gas phase in their liquid nitrogen storage systems. If a disaster strikes and your lab only has a couple of inches of liquid nitrogen in your liquid nitrogen storage units, that nitrogen will evaporate off in only a day or two. This could result in lost samples if no nitrogen is available by the time yours evaporates. In the event of an evacuation, fill your liquid nitrogen storage systems as full of liquid nitrogen as your system will safely hold. This can give you up to a month, or even more, of time before the storage system needs to be refilled with more liquid nitrogen. 

7. Test alarms and safety equipment and ensure all contact info is current for alarm monitoring systems

When disaster strikes in the middle of the night or on weekends, alarm monitoring systems will notify laboratory staff that equipment such as freezers and incubators have gone into alarm, allowing staff time to come in and try to save their samples by putting them on dry ice or moving them to other freezers or incubators that may still have power. It is very important that the contact information used by your alarm monitoring system to contact lab staff always be kept up to date.

Testing both alarm monitoring system and fire sprinklers is also very important. Alarm monitoring systems should be tested by the laboratory on a quarterly basis to ensure that they are functioning and contacting the proper staff. How do you test your alarm monitoring system? All you need to do is adjust your upper and lower limit set-points to send the units into alarm without warming up your freezer and risking the well-being of your samples. Fire sprinklers can prevent severe damage in the case of a lab fire. Ensure your institute tests them regularly to ensure they are functioning properly. 

8. Send critical samples to off-site storage and ensure unique animal strains are preserved

Irreplaceable samples in your lab’s possession that are not commercially available, such as patient samples or any kind of intellectual property, such as unique cell lines, antibodies, etc., need to be protected. Aliquots, or portions, of these samples should be sent off-site for storage, to protect them in the event of a disaster that destroys all the samples in your lab. Having samples off-site will prevent complete loss of this irreplaceable material. Use free options for storage, when possible. If you have collaborators in other states (or for corporations, if you have locations in different states) send samples to these locations. If free options are not available to you, there are commercial entities that will store your samples for you for a fee. 

Just as with critical samples, cryo-preservation through embryo cryopreservation or sperm freezing, will allow recovery of unique animal strains that are not commercially available if all your animals are lost in a disaster. 

9. Create a plan to relocate critical equipment or samples in the event of a complete power outage

On occasion, both the standard power and the emergency power can go out in a lab. When writing your disaster preparedness plan, consider adding a section to address this problem, should it occur. If you do add this to your plan, think about two scenarios:

Complete power outage where your entire institute is without any kind of power at all: you will need to move samples into liquid nitrogen, onto dry ice, or contact a freezer vendor that you have identified in advance to come get the freezers and move them to their warehouse where they can plug them in.

Partial power outage where sections of your institute still have power: in this case, you will want to have some possible locations within your institute identified where you could move your freezers. You will need to make sure in advance that these spaces are large enough for your freezers and that they have the proper electrical in place. 

10. Identify the most critical functions

Sometimes during the disaster recovery period, resources such as staff and supplies are limited. In case this happens, it is important to know which functions are the most important to your institution and to plan to dedicate resources to those functions during the disaster recovery phase until enough resources are available again to get all operations back online. Cross-training staff is an important aspect of being able to maintain continuity with critical functions when staffing shortages become a problem due to a disaster.

Following these tips will help you create your own lab’s disaster preparedness plan, and ensure you have every scenario covered.