Lab Design and Furnishings

Best Practices for Reopening Your Lab

Lab modifications allow a safe return to work

The country—and the world for that matter—has been shut down for the better part of two months due to COVID-19. As we start to reopen and head back to our offices, researchers will also be returning to their labs and offices. Laboratory environments require special considerations because of the ongoing research, special environmental controls, chemicals, and other hazards. Authorities such as the Centers for Disease Control, the World Health Organization, and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration should be the primary resources on safely returning to work, as well as guidance from your facility Environmental Health and Safety officers. To augment that information, the following are additional suggestions with laboratory staff and environments in mind. 

Set a plan

Reopening a large facility, a complex or campus can be a daunting task. The good news is that by nature of their training, laboratory personnel are better prepared for this new normal than almost any other profession.

  • Identify manageable groupings divided by research type, department, or risk level.
  • Prioritize research initiatives happening within laboratories that need to come on line first.
  • Develop written standard operating procedures (SOPs).
  • Set up training and provide resources.
  • Define timing and triggers for each step of a phased return to full occupancy.
  • Confirm supply chains for PPE and ensure stocks are available in suitable quantities for your needs.

Employee readiness

The researchers and support staff are of course the top priority. Keeping them safe and healthy is critical to your success.

  • Define clear expectations for work attendance.
  • If feasible, perform temperature/health checks on employees prior to their entry into a building.
  • Establish personal protection equipment (PPE) guidelines. For example, is wearing masks encouraged or mandatory?
  • Reserve the use of medical PPE to healthcare providers and laboratory personnel when possible. Encourage other employees to wear fabric masks within the work environment. Masks should be laundered, steamed, or ironed frequently for cleanliness and to decrease potential viral load transmission.  
  • Ensure wellness breaks for staff. Overworked and stressed employees are more likely to miss steps, leading to accidents. Access to daylight and fresh air reduce fatigue. Staggered schedules for stretch and break times can help get employees moving throughout the day for both physical movement and a mental clarity.

Laboratory readiness

Set up directional movement in the lab so people are moving in one direction of travel.
HERA Lab Planners

Laboratories have more complex requirements than other office spaces, but modifications can still be put in place to create a safer lab space.

  • Set up directional movement so people are moving in one direction of travel. If you have the ability, have people enter through one door/lobby and exit through a separate door to help prevent cross contamination. If you have aisles, ensure they have cross connections so people can walk one direction down one aisle and the return direction in the next aisle. This flow will limit back-to-back exposure of personnel that might infringe the 6-foot diameter guideline.
  • In dry labs and office areas where sinks are not available, place hand sanitizer stations adjacent to exit doors and signage suggesting the use of sanitizer after touching shared items such as knobs, printers, keyboards, etc.
  • Where fire code and function allow, prop doors between communicating spaces open to limit the need to touch doorknobs. If sound is a concern, implement alternative noise reduction methods such as sound masking or white noise. Or consider installing hands-free door foot openers, auto door sensors, or door openers that can be activated by elbow.
  • Establish a scheduling protocol of shared equipment rooms to avoid overloading spaces.
  • Have PI’s work with personnel to identify areas of inefficiency where extended travel distances might be reduced; this will reduce potential infringement on social distancing but will also reduce turbulent airflow that might spread virus. Lab planners use a method called spaghetti diagramming to reprogram efficient labs.
  • Find ways to reduce density within the lab to ensure six-foot work zones:
    • Evaluate the personal clearances based on the laboratory conditions and authority guidelines.
    • Challenge your teams to identify the minimum cohort group needed to advance the research.
    • Divide your team into half or thirds to alternate running the lab in shifts and to reduce density. Keep each group separate so if someone from one group gets ill they can quarantine and the other groups continue the research. 
    • Each lab will be unique. Consider processes and how each employee will touch multiple workstations then devise a strategy for segregation.
    • Stage one occupancy may require just one personnel per side of an island to maintain recommended clearances.
    • Consider installing plexi dividers on two-sided benches to improve protection and density.
    • Limit lab access to outside PIs, other staff, and deliveries.

Support space readiness

Evaluate the personal clearances based on the laboratory conditions and authority guidelines.
HERA Lab Planners

Research buildings have square footage beyond the laboratories to consider. This support space, the soft space, also requires considerations moving forward.

  • If possible, create an “up only” staircase and a “down only” staircase to create one direction of vertical travel; similarly, establish one-way directional travel in corridors.
  • Post occupancies for support space that can be congregation zones such as elevators, break rooms, and conference rooms. 
  • Where possible, temporarily convert restrooms to single occupancy with in-use locks or signs to limit overcrowding in tight spaces.
  • Avoid sharing coffee, food, and amenities such as refrigerators and dishwashers.
  • Continue to host larger in-house meetings virtually until occupancy can be increased.
  • Consider installing plexi-shields in open-office areas. Avoid shared hotel office situations.

Building readiness

Stage one occupancy may require just one personnel per side of an island to maintain recommended clearances.
HERA Lab Planners

Lastly, modifications to the building itself can improve safety and may be required if your research lab has been mostly dormant during stay at home orders.

  • Where fire code and function allow, prop doors between communicating spaces open to limit the need to touch doorknobs. If sound is a concern, implement alternative noise reduction methods such as sound masking or white noise. Or consider installing hands-free door foot openers, auto door sensors, or door openers that can be activated by elbow.
  • Where mechanical systems can be modified, increase single pass airflow to prevent re-entry or spread of viruses from one space to another.
  • Consider adding HEPA filtration.
  • Review inventory of cleaning chemicals, materials, and consumables to ensure inventory is aligned with needs and complies with building code and storage guidelines.
  • In dry labs, common spaces and public thoroughfares, place hand sanitizer stations adjacent to exit doors and signage suggesting the use of sanitizer after touching shared items such as knobs, printers, keyboards, etc.
  • If your building has been shut down during stay-at-home measures, complete a physical condition assessment prior to reopening to ensure there is no damage caused by vacancy. You will want to assess:
    • Mechanical systems
    • Water systems
    • Conveyances
    • Potable water: flush faucets
    • Fire life safety systems
    • Open site drains and traps
  • Start building systems methodically to prevent load shed from simultaneous starts. Observe them running for a bit to ensure proper operation. Consider testing carbon monoxide levels around systems that may circulate air throughout buildings.
  • Direct deliveries to be made to a single location and designate a single person to retrieve. Where laboratories are part of or connected to health care facilities, demarcate, or add color coding to identify higher hazard areas. Colored window film, wall paint, and removable adhesive marking on the floor are inexpensive ways of adding color.
  • Where laboratories are part of or connected to health care facilities, demarcate, or add color coding to identify higher hazard areas. Colored window film, wall paint, and removable adhesive marking on the floor are inexpensive ways of adding color.

Rainey Hufstetler, AIA; Amy Tongay, AIA; Matt Willmus, RA; and Keith Whittle, AIA, are with HERA Lab Planners.