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Scientist working in a biosafety cabinet
Apart from preventing laboratory-acquired infections in academic and industrial settings, a good biosafety program ensures the production of sterile preparations in the pharmaceutical industry and aseptic processing in food and beverage manufacturing.
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Biosafety in the Workplace: 4 Essential Practices

Best biosafety practices reduce health risks, increase the integrity of experimental material, and improve product quality

Morgana Moretti, PhD

The main goal of a biosafety program is to protect staff, the public, and the environment from exposure to infectious biological agents, toxins, and bioactive substances. 

Apart from preventing laboratory-acquired infections in academic and industrial settings, a good biosafety program ensures the production of sterile preparations in the pharmaceutical industry and aseptic processing in food and beverage manufacturing. Good biosafety practices can also limit microorganism transmission between patients and control environmental risks of infection in hospitals and other health care facilities. Failure to follow biosafety protocols increases the risk of exposure to biohazards and reduces the integrity of experimental material and products. 

This article outlines four essential practices to strengthen biosecurity in the workplace.

1. Conduct a biological risk assessment

Before handling biohazardous agents, laboratory administrators and biosafety professionals must conduct a risk assessment. This process is essential to accurately level biosafety and set procedures to keep laboratory workers and the public safe from biohazards at the workplace.

Although there is no standard way of carrying out a biological risk assessment, you can start by determining the sources of biohazards in the workplace. These sources can include bioactive compounds, harmful plants, and organisms that cause infectious diseases. The health-related risk levels of a biological hazard can be determined by the agent's pathogenicity, transmission route, stability in the environment, infection dose, and availability of effective prevention and treatment.

“Failure to follow biosafety protocols increases the risk of exposure to biohazards and reduces the integrity of experimental material and products.”

After evaluating the agent hazards, you should assess laboratory procedure hazards, including agent concentration, the scale of operation and the volume used, the risks of aerosol exposure or contact with droplets of infectious suspensions, and the use of sharps or needles. Based on agent characteristics and the nature of the work conducted, determine the appropriate biosafety level and hazard controls. For example, production laboratories that deal with nonlethal agents that pose a minimal potential threat to humans (like the probiotic microorganism Lactobacillus acidophilus) are usually considered BSL-1, the lowest biosafety lab level. On the other hand, a specialized laboratory dealing with easily transmitted pathogens that can cause fatal diseases (like Ebola) is designated as BSL-4, the highest biological safety level a facility can attain.

Identifying and assessing health hazards may require specialized knowledge. In the US, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides confidential 

occupational safety and health services to small- and medium-sized businesses at no cost. Such services include workplace hazard detection and further assessment. 

Finally, laboratory leaders and biosafety professionals should regularly evaluate proficiency of safety practices, frequently check the integrity of the safety equipment, and periodically review the risk assessment to ensure a safe laboratory operation.

2. Use appropriate safety equipment

When properly selected and used, engineering controls and personal protective equipment (PPE) work as primary barriers to prevent exposure to harmful biological agents. 

Engineering controls are devices or equipment designed to separate people from biohazards. They are considered the first line of defense against biohazards and include enclosed containers, safety centrifuge cups, and biosafety cabinets. Safety centrifuge cups minimize aerosol release during centrifugation, and biosafety cabinets contain pathogenic microorganisms during microbiological processes. Class I and II biosafety cabinets provide environmental and personal protection from hazardous particulates. Class II biosafety cabinets also prevent contamination of products and biological material (i.e., cell cultures) during microbiological manipulations within the cabinet. Class III cabinets are gas-tight and provide the highest level of protection to the environment, product, and user; they are designed for BSL-4, highly infectious agents.

Wherever possible, risks should be eliminated through a better facility design, suitable engineering controls, and improved laboratory processes. If risks cannot be eliminated, they should be minimized by the use of PPE, which may include gloves, safety glasses, face protection, respirators, lab coats, or full-body suits. Although PPE does not prevent the hazard from appearing, it protects the wearer once the biohazard comes into contact with them.

Supervisors are primarily responsible for implementing the safety program in the workplace by ensuring that hazards have been evaluated, that the appropriate engineering controls and PPE are made available, and that employees have received training on the proper use, care, and disposal of safety equipment. Employees must be familiar with safety equipment, use it whenever required, and immediately report any defects or damage on such equipment.

3. Design facilities to prevent the release of harmful biological agents  

The facility design is essential in providing a secondary barrier that protects the outside community and the environment from accidental release of infectious agents from laboratories. Recommended secondary barriers will depend on the purpose of each laboratory and on the recommended biosafety level for the agent being manipulated. 

BSL-1 and BSL-2 laboratories, for instance, must have isolation from public access, availability of decontamination equipment (e.g., autoclave), and handwashing facilities. Additional secondary barriers in BSL-3 laboratories may include self-closing double doors and a balanced ventilation system that provides directional airflow to the laboratory. In BSL-4 facilities, laboratories should be located in a separate building, with no windows, and employees must perform full-body sterilization before entering and after exiting the lab.

“Mindset change takes a long time, so leaders' safety messages must be consistent and sustained.”

Primarily, this form of containment is achieved not only by well-equipped laboratories regarding physical structure but also with regard to work routines—including solid waste disposal, cleaning, and disinfection of objects and laboratory areas.

4. Follow good laboratory techniques and practices

A correct laboratory engineering design and the proper use of safety equipment alone are not sufficient. Good laboratory techniques and practices are core components of safety in the workplace, too.

Good laboratory practice encompasses several working methods that minimize workplace contamination. These include good hygiene practices, using manipulation techniques that reduce aerosol production, ensuring mouth or eyes remain untouched, and never working alone in a laboratory setting. Exposure and injuries are more likely to occur in poorly maintained, disorderly areas, so keeping the laboratory clean and tidy is also critical for maximum efficiency and safety. Laboratory personnel should also understand their roles and be instructed to perform their duties in emergencies, from power outages to incidental spills or deliberate malicious acts. 

Some instances of effective strategies that leaders can use to foster biorisk management are: (I) awareness of biohazard risks, (II) periodic training to improve education, and (III) audited adherence to standard procedures. A safety manual that includes laboratory spill and emergency procedures must also be available to and followed by all the staff. 

Culture matters

Academic and industrial laboratories are complex environments with many hazard categories. The safety of all employees, the community, and the environment depends on mandatory safety rules and an ongoing commitment to them. When biosafety is a shared priority, people recognize the value of reporting their concerns, openly share information, and take action whenever needed. 

Leaders can demonstrate their commitment to safety by supporting the organization in learning about errors, investigating their causes, developing strategies to prevent them, and sharing the lessons learned with staff. Mindset change takes a long time, so leaders' safety messages must be consistent and sustained. Surveys measuring staff perception of safety culture are often valuable tools to assess the presence of a culture of safety in an organization. A culture that emphasizes biosafety should be characterized by both individual and institutional compliance with biosafety and laboratory biosecurity regulations, guidelines, standards, policies, and procedures.

In addition to the practices outlined here, biosecurity can be complemented by the following: clear definition of roles and responsibilities, competency-based training, safety performance measurement, inspections and audits, medical surveillance, and vaccination. Laboratory accreditation and certification may also help ensure that laboratories implement biosafety measures according to the standard guidelines. Altogether, these procedures ensure a safe environment, both within and outside the laboratory.