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How to Protect Your Assets Using Scenario Planning

Why risk your most precious research and products?

Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT

Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT, is senior safety editor for Lab Manager. His EHS and risk career spans more than three decades in various roles as a...

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What if any of these scenarios occurred?

  • Your lab's -80°C freezer lost power and it warmed up too high, too fast, or without anyone knowing or taking action.
  • Your lab was broken into, and they stole computers, pieces of equipment, research items, etc.
  • Your lab suffered infrastructure problems such as dirty air, runaway heating or cooling, or a roof or pipe leak above your lab.

Each of these are examples of real-life scenarios that labs have had to deal with. Here’s how to prevent similar events from harming your lab operations, research, and people. 

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Scenario planning for critical loss prevention of assets

Assets can be a variety of things, ranging from analytical or storage equipment to intellectual property, samples, data sets, and your staff.

These assets should be integrated into your business continuity planning (BCP) and continuity of operations planning (COOP). Your assets should be listed, assessed, insured, backed up, and protected. If not, you’ll likely suffer considerable losses. 

It’s important to consider the potential risks to these assets and determine steps to reduce these risks. Here are some different approaches to assess the risks. First, what keeps you up at night? It’s likely important or at least a good place to start discussing this. Next is to determine your greatest “threat to value.” This term is used by Andrew Maynard, professor at the School for the Future of Innovation in Society, Arizona State University, to describe the most critical thing at any given time to a person or group. 

“What if” scenarios are a useful tool for risk planning. What if this or that occurred? What would happen (even if it’s not likely)? Along with “what ifs”, use pre-mortems. Ask your team, if this project dies, what likely killed it? Don’t stop at what harmed it. It’s best to know what ended its life. 

Many assets have a single weak link. Does your lab need a constant connection but relies on Wi-Fi only? Does it have backup power? Risk probability analyses can help you calculate and compare the relative risks. They use three factors (severity, exposure, and probability) to calculate and compare different risks. Redundancies and backups are essential elements to protect valuable assets. 

That -80°C freezer

Imagine your lab has $1 million of research in a -80°C freezer. What steps might you take to protect it? This loss occurred at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI).1 A -80°C freezer that had 20 years of research in it was known to be noisy and needing repair based on a warning that professors posted on it advising “Do not move or unplug…”. A custodian tired of the beeping allegedly flipped off a breaker switch, which killed the power to the freezer. There was no backup power, no alert for power loss, nor an alert for low temperature. It was a single weak link with zero redundancies. 

Some solutions include:

    An uninterruptible power supply as backup power

    Temperature monitors with alerts to in-house facilities, an outside central station, and possible audible and visual alarms in the building

    Locked breaker panels with on-call facilities/electrician assistance 

    Diagnosing and fixing the noise problem 

    Splitting up their research between two or more -80°C freezers  

    Scenario planning given their obvious concerns based on the note

Building security issues

A large university suffered an onslaught of break-ins over several months. The only “good news” was that no one was hurt during these property crimes. 

Campuses and other lab buildings are often open environments to the public with porous building security that varies by building and lab. You should always secure your outermost perimeter (i.e., the property, then building exterior, interior areas, labs, and lastly, the assets). If you don’t secure the outermost parts, it’s much easier for bad things to happen to your assets. 

Cameras are frequently requested by lab staff but at best they record what they see only after the criminal is inside your building. Often, the video doesn’t show enough to help (the face is hidden by a cap, hood, or sunglasses), or the recording file is corrupted. 

Many of these were crimes of opportunity. The thief was walking the halls and trying doorknobs. They either enter right then or come back later. A few examples of popular stolen items include anything of apparent or perceived greater value like laptops, phones, tablets, EarPods, or power tools. 

What about having your access stolen? Do you use keys (a notorious challenge to manage well), master keys along with the record of what each one accesses (imagine having to rekey a building), pushbutton access (with a single code many folks know), or access cards (with individual records stored)? 

Despite the challenges, there are preventive steps lab staff can take. First, ask your local police or security to perform a threat assessment and discuss its results with leadership. Lobby for outer perimeter security measures such as keycards instead of physical keys. Ensure that the keys and key distribution process aren’t visible to others. Even small measures make a difference. Post signs and provide reminders to occupants to always securely close and lock doors and not to let others enter. You can also ask your facilities department to assess and reinforce the door and lockset guards to minimize forced entry. 

Infrastructure problems

Buildings have many systems that are subject to failure. Here are a few real-life examples: 

An HVAC filter gave way, allowing the accumulated dirt to be spread throughout a biomedical engineering suite of labs. It took weeks to decontaminate everything, causing research to be lost along with supplies, samples, and equipment. 

In an older set of interconnected buildings, the heating system would periodically fail. This caused the temperature in parts of the buildings to skyrocket into the 90s F. A chemical engineering lab doing air quality research with external funding had flammables, which will flash at room temperature. This too caused research to be lost in the form of tests, conditions, ongoing experiments, and time. It also caused great concerns over the flammable liquids risk. 

Water can also be a problem for lab assets. One lab would get inches of water whenever it rained due to many roof leaks. A brand-new lab was flooded from above when its neighbor on the next floor used single pass cooling and the hose connection let go, which ran under the sink and through piping holes in the floor. An electrical engineering lab had its new electrical dissipating tiles damaged by excessive condensation that produced a rainforest-like effect. A building was flooded when a small fire was extinguished but the sprinklers couldn’t be shut off. Many labs don’t have floor drains adequate to contain the hundreds of gallons from an emergency shower event. 

Infrastructure risks like these require you as the lab manager to rely on other departments to resolve, but with proper communication, documentation, and support, you can escalate issues to get them fixed. Follow your organization’s process to request facilities to act. Be sure to indicate urgency as applicable. If it affects health and safety (e.g., potential mold growth, flammables) then notify Environmental Health and Safety. If it could impact research, let the Research Office and leadership know. The other groups can help facilitate a response quickly. 

Also, let Risk Management know right away. They may have advice on the dos and don’ts, including filing a claim. Start to secure, clean, and relocate your lab’s delicate, sensitive, or protected research, equipment, and samples. Response personnel often won’t or can’t handle these items. Take photos and document what occurred as materials for filing your claim. Insurers will need copies of receipts, valuations, evidence of damage, etc. The more prepared you are, the better. 

Key takeaways to avoid asset loss

A single point of failure will eventually break or give way. Power, security, air systems, heating or cooling, and water will all eventually fail. There are several tools for scenario planning such as what ifs and pre-mortems to predict project or asset deaths. All this fits in well with BCPs and COOPs so incorporate these scenarios into your plans. As the old saying goes, “If you fail to plan, you plan to fail.”