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laboratory safety lessons from the COVID-19 pandemic

Lab Safety Lessons Learned from COVID-19: One-Year Update

The effects of the COVID-19 pandemic will have a lasting impact on workplaces and daily habits

Dan Scungio, MT (ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ)

Dan Scungio, MT (ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ), has over 25 years of experience as a certified medical technologist and a bachelor’s degree in medical technology from the State University of...

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One year has come and gone since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic in the United States, and globally. Many people just want to forget about 2020 entirely. From panic over toilet paper supplies to restrictions on socializing, and even job loss, it seems like there is very little about the past 12 months that we would like to remember. While much has changed in our world, there are some positive things that have developed, and there are plenty of lessons learned that will help us as we move toward the future.

Certainly, lessons were learned in the world of laboratory safety. Many organizations began work with reprocessing personal protective equipment (PPE) so that it could be safely reused. Shortages of supplies helped us to realize things we never before considered. For example, some disposable lab coats can be washed up to five times. N95 respirators function safely well after their manufacturer expiration date. 

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Workplace health and safety

One important lesson learned in the past year was how crucial it is to educate laboratory workers and the public about safety and standard precautions. The public has become aware of how much their safety is affected by the unsafe behaviors of those around them. People who refuse to wear masks or who are sick and do not isolate themselves may create situations where the virus is spread to others. In the past year, many people have realized this and have felt empowered to say something to those who are not exhibiting safe behaviors. The realization that they may be in danger has made people feel comfortable speaking up for their safety and that of others around them. Perhaps that is what is needed in the laboratory workplace setting as well.

One of the earliest challenges many laboratory leaders faced in the past year was dealing with the fears of staff who would have to work with COVID-19 patients or specimens. With the news reporting daily death tolls and unscientific data (like mortality rates when the total number of cases could not be determined), the amount of fear that was generated for some people became obvious at work. Staff members became afraid of collecting or handling any specimens, and people began unnecessary practices like double-bagging swab specimens, or wearing gloves when transporting samples. Some lab employees refused to perform COVID-19 testing, and others with direct patient contact would not work with patients. 

Teaching employees to deal with those fears and to continue to do their work became a priority for many very quickly. Many leaders conducted meetings and educational sessions. It was important to remind staff that they usually dealt with specimens every day that contain bacteria and other viruses that could be as harmful (if not more) to them. They had to remember that if they continued to utilize standard precautions, they could remain safe in the workplace. In some locations, COVID-19 FAQ newsletters were used to address hot-button issues and answer common questions about PPE, high-touch surfaces, and aerosol generating procedures. It was a good lesson to learn—employees always need regular information about the proper handling of the hazards they work with and knowledge about how to remain safe on the job.

Related Series: The State of Science During COVID-19

One year later, fear among lab workers appears to be diminished. Proper procedures are in place, and adequate protection measures have been implemented. PPE supply shortages haven’t helped progress, but there have even been lessons learned in that arena. Because of international shortages of supplies, the United States Centers for Disease Control and Prevention provided information about extended use and re-use of PPE equipment. Organizations moved from using disposable lab coats and gowns to reusable ones. Hospitals had to set up methods for reprocessing and disinfecting gowns and N95 respirators for reuse using ultraviolet lighting or a hydrogen peroxide vapor treatment. While PPE supply issues seem to have calmed down, labs learned many lessons about how to handle such shortages in the future.  

There were other lessons learned regarding laboratory testing as well. As the pandemic progressed, many health care organizations and labs were asked to bring on board new COVID-19 testing rapidly. In some cases, new laboratory space had to be found for analyzers and supply storage. Many considerations had to be discussed such as room ventilation, safety equipment (biological safety cabinets, eyewash stations, spill kits, etc.), and proper specimen transport. 

A year ago, professionals were aware of teachings about the use of risk assessments, but the many changes to the workplace brought about by the pandemic really emphasized the need for such assessments. The process of identifying the risks associated with new testing, rating the likelihood and consequences of potential hazards in the process, and then implementing steps to mitigate those hazards is far more common today than a year ago. Performing these assessments routinely and reviewing them will help to keep staff safe as work continues in the testing departments.

Public health and safety

The pandemic has also taught lessons to the public about their perception of safety. One year ago, if you looked around, how many hand sanitizing stations were available at gas pumps? Now they are commonplace. Certainly, hand washing frequency has increased, and masking along with social distancing have made some differences. The number of influenza cases has not warranted much mention during a season where many are sick or hospitalized with that illness every year. The people who have been following guidelines to protect themselves from COVID-19 have also helped to limit the spread of the flu and other infectious diseases. It will be fascinating to see what other lessons will be taken forward. Haven’t high-touch surfaces like gas pumps, vending machines, doorknobs, and elevator buttons always been dangerous with regard to the spread of pathogens? Will we continue to use safer practices even after the COVID-19 pandemic has passed? Will salad bars (which always had been known to be communicable pathogen hotspots) even make a comeback? Will people gather in movie theaters and concert halls again—without masks? It will be interesting to see where mankind’s behaviors land at the end of this pandemic.

COVID-19 vaccine development

Many COVID-19 vaccines are becoming available to the public, and while the rollout may seem slow to some, the reality is that these are being released at a very rapid pace. The utilization of FDA Emergency Use Authorizations (EUA) has made possible the release of several COVID-19 detection tests and vaccinations. There have been some lessons learned in the past year about using a rapid implementation process as well. Some lab tests came with low sensitivity rates and potential false negative results. Vaccines were released before their full efficacy could be determined. However, without the use of EUAs, the standard timeframes to release new testing or drugs is painfully slow. In the past year, we were able to do much to detect and prevent the spread of COVID-19 when speed was vital.

It is unknown at this point (as of the writing of this article) whether or not the COVID-19 vaccine will fully keep people from spreading the disease. It is known, however, that the vaccines are very effective at keeping recipients from getting very sick or needing to be hospitalized. Medical experts believe that is enough knowledge to move forward. It is unknown if the use of vaccines will help us to open theaters or remove our masks. That may be disappointing to some, but because of the rapid implementation, more time is needed to make these determinations. We may very well learn, as with many other inoculations, that these vaccines fully prevent the spread of the disease. They may provide full and lasting immunity, but only time will tell. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed our perceptions about that as well, and perhaps we have become more patient because of it.

2020 is behind us, and we have many reasons to wish it so. However, while we want to rid ourselves of the bad times we encountered because of the COVID-19 pandemic, we need to remember to hold on to those positive lessons we discovered. Remember the good safety practices, the strategic supplies acquisition and reuse tricks, and the importance of using risk assessments to mitigate hazards. Taking these concepts forward will enable us to better face the next looming crisis while keeping safety where it belongs—at the forefront.