Lab managers need to be persistent role models of proper safety practices to ensure staff follow suit. Whether they realize it or not, leaders in the laboratory have a direct effect on the departmental safety culture. When a leader fails to be a safety role model, they damage the overall attitudes toward safety, even if they do not intend to have that impact. Employees take their cue from the manager or leader about their approach to safety.
In this eBook, you’ll learn about:
- The leader’s role in setting an example for lab safety
- Top lab safety tips from lab managers
- Electrical safety in the laboratory
- When to upgrade your lab’s biological safety cabinet
- Innovations in personal protective equipment
48073_LM_Lab Safety_eBOOK_JL V5
? The Leader’s Role in Setting an Example for Lab Safety
? Top Lab Safety Tips from Lab Managers
? Electrical Safety in the Laboratory
? When to Upgrade your Lab’s Biological Safety Cabinet
? Innovations in Personal Protective Equipment
The Leader’s Role in Setting an Example for Lab Safety
Lab managers need to be persistent role models of proper safety practices to ensure staff follow suit
by Dan Scungio, MT (ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ)
Judy is the new lab manager. She decides she will hold daily staff huddles rather than official staff meetings. Her first order of business is to improve the use of personal protective equip- ment (PPE) by the staff and to discuss proper lab footwear.
During the first huddle, Judy wears a knee-length dress with sandals, and she doesn’t put on a lab coat.
Grace has been a lab manager for three years. Recently, she has prioritized her focus to handle the challenge of staff short- ages. One morning, she leaves her office to ask a technologist if he can cover an empty shift next week. She walks into the lab and quickly back into the office. She passes an employee who is chewing gum and another who rolled up their lab coat sleeves while working. Grace doesn’t notice these issues as she walks by.
Pete goes into the lab to sign some forms in the chemistry department. When Lana suggests that he put on a lab coat, Pete lashes out and tells her she should not speak to a manager that way. He tells Lana if she mentions anything again, he will give her a written warning.
Whether they realize it or not, leaders in the laboratory have a direct effect on the departmental safety culture. When a leader fails to be a safety role model, they damage the overall attitudes toward safety, even if they do not intend to have that impact. Employees take their cue from the manager or leader about their approach to safety. If the leader does not pay attention to it, the staff will follow suit.
How to be a leader in lab safety
Acting as a role model for safety is not difficult, but it may take some practice. There are different methods to use to make positive changes. In the first example above, Judy wants to be a good manager, and she recognizes that there are safety concerns in the lab. However, a leader should always model the behaviors they want to see. In this instance, if huddles
are to be held in the laboratory, PPE should be utilized by everyone present, even the manager. If a lab leader enters the department throughout the day, they should wear lab-appro- priate footwear. These simple acts of modeling proper safety behaviors take no extra time, but they go a long way toward showing staff where safety stands in the leader’s priority list.
Managers can often do great damage to the safety culture, even unintentionally, by ignoring safety issues. In the second story, Grace is focused on staffing. She may be an expert in lab safety, and safety may be a top priority for her, but her act of ignoring issues sets the culture back. It sends the message to all staff that those issues are not important to Grace, so they will not, in turn, be important to them.
There is no value in being able to notice a potentially danger- ous situation if nothing is done to rectify it.
Sometimes, lab leaders are not trained to see safety issues in the department. These managers should work to develop their “safety eyes” so that spotting issues becomes second nature.
Lab Safety Resource Guide
Lab Safety Resource Guide
Begin by using a checklist to look at specific areas of safety each week. For example, during the first week, observe staff shoes and PPE. Pay specific attention to what is worn and how it is used. The next week, focus on chemical labeling and storage, the third week, look at departmental signage, etc. If a leader takes at least a week to focus on one safety area at a time, it will become easier to spot problems, even while performing other job duties.
The second important part of being able to see safety issues is fixing them. There is no value in being able to notice a potentially dangerous situation if nothing is done to rectify it. Most physical safety issues should be corrected immediately so that no one is harmed because of them. Remove the floor mat that curled up and has become a trip hazard, or close the cabinet door that someone left open. If other fixes will take longer (i.e., a frayed electrical cord), be sure to block off the unsafe area or take the equipment out of service. If unsafe behaviors are observed, correct staff immediately, but do it appropriately. Never correct an employee in front of others so
that they would be embarrassed or humiliated. Correct unsafe acts in private, and remember to praise safe habits in public when possible.
Anyone can be a leader when it comes to lab safety
In the final story, Pete decides that his role as the manager means he is in a higher-level position than his staff. He choos- es to establish what is known as a “power distance” between him and his subordinates. While a high power distance culture may be useful for some leaders to get overall compli- ance from employees, it can be detrimental to a strong culture of safety.
The airline industry realized years ago the dangers of a high power distance between pilots and co-pilots. In certain coun- tries, the culture dictated that the pilot was in command, and he should not be questioned by the co-pilot. When it was rec- ognized that air disasters occurred because the co-pilot failed to speak up or because the pilot refused to listen, the industry as a whole worked to lower the perceived power distance.
For the sake of safety, this needs to happen in the laboratory as well. The manager can help to control and lower the power
distance if it seems high. Begin by having discussions with the team and assure them that it is acceptable for anyone to speak up about safety issues in the department. When it comes to safety, everyone in the area should be seen as a peer, and all peers need to be open to coaching when necessary—that includes laboratory staff, processors, technologists, managers, and directors.
Another way laboratory leaders can elevate the safety culture and show that safety is important is to generate staff in- volvement in departmental safety processes. Appoint staff to complete regular safety rounds to raise awareness in certain areas like chemical hygiene, bloodborne pathogens, fire safety, etc. Have staff take turns presenting a safety success story at the start of each huddle or meeting. Create a lab safety com- mittee comprised of various team members and assign them to awareness activities such as making safety posters, games, or contests.
Safety as a top priority
Every lab manager gives their safety program a different priority level. While the safety culture tends to be stronger when the leader gives it consistent attention, it is important to understand that individual laboratory staff can still make a positive difference in the overall culture, even if not sup- ported by the manager. It is important to recognize that one person supporting the safety of the department is not an ideal
situation, but that one person can still make a difference using consistency and acting as a role model.
There is hope for Judy, Grace, and Pete. Judy may learn that modeling safety habits is more important than wearing fashionable clothing. Grace may improve her safety eyes so that she addresses gum chewing and PPE issues as she goes
through the department. Pete may understand that while he is in a leadership position, he is still prone to unsafe acts, and it is acceptable for others to coach and correct him. Laboratory leadership is an awesome responsibility, and managers must learn to balance multiple operational details in a single day.
Incorporating safety practices such as modeling, paying atten- tion to details, and lowering the perceived power distance can be powerful tools that ultimately keep employees safer and more productive in the laboratory.
Top Lab Safety Tips from Lab Managers
Building a culture of lab safety involves a persistent, multi-layered approach
by Lauren Everett and Ajay Manuel, PhD
Do you struggle to get everyone in your lab to consistently adhere to safety protocols and procedures? Developing a cul- ture of safety in the lab is a common challenge for lab man- agers, but there are solutions to improve lab safety through increased engagement and motivation among staff.
Active participation in regular safety meetings
One of the most common approaches is to schedule regular safety meetings that ensure all staff is involved. One way to get more active participation in meetings is to ask staff mem- bers to report on a specific safety topic or update in the lab at each meeting. Asking lab staff to present on a specific lab safe- ty topic gives them a sense of ownership of the topic they are presenting to the group. This sense of ownership will lead to heightened interest and engagement. Another important fac- tor in successful safety meetings is to ask your staff questions and promote open dialogue, allowing everyone to think about safety frequently. Being prepared with discussion prompts or questions can help initiate the conversation at the start of lab safety meetings.
Dedication and diligence
As the lab manager, you are responsible for setting an exam- ple of what lab safety leadership looks like. How you respond to a near-miss or actual lab accident will show your staff how dedicated they should be to working safely. Persistence is important. Lab managers should be very aware of the working habits of their staff, and acknowledge any unsafe behaviors as they observe them. If staff raise a concern or issue regarding safety in the lab, it is crucial that the lab manager stays on
top of the issue and keeps it a priority until it is resolved. If a safety concern, incident, or unsafe behavior is overlooked by management, lab staff will be less motivated to do things the right way.
Communication is key
Whether in team meetings or private discussions, proper communication is essential in building a strong safety culture. Listening and acting on conversations with staff are key elements of good communication. Open-door policies pro- mote open communication here staff can provide input to lab policies and guidance. This can be implemented in various ways via websites, emails, newsletters, and hands-on training. The importance of communication and follow-through is also equally important, helping sustain open conversation.
There’s no one solution to improving safety compliance in the lab; rather, it requires a multi-layered approach. Addition- al methods such as sharing safety tips of the week; sending “what-if” emails; prize wheels or other rewards for submitting safety suggestions and identifying near-misses; online train- ing; and many more, all make a difference.
Lab Safety Resource Guide
Electrical Safety in the Laboratory
Electricity powers nearly everything used in the lab, but the associated hazards should never be overlooked
by Ira Wainless, B.CH.E., PE, CIH
Electricity has long been recognized as a serious workplace hazard. However, because electricity has become such a familiar part of our daily lives, we tend to overlook the hazards electricity poses, and fail to treat it with the respect it deserves.
Today’s laboratories rely on a vast array of electrically pow- ered equipment. Examples of equipment that are routinely used in day-to-day operations include:
Stirring and mixing devices
Heating devices (e.g., hot plates, heating mantles, ovens, etc.)
Refrigerators and freezers
These and all electrical devices used in the lab setting present a potential danger of injury due to electric shock, electrocu- tion, burns, fires, explosions, and falls. Most incidents are a result of unsafe work practices, improper equipment use, and faulty equipment.
Effects of electric shock
The significant hazards associated with electricity are elec- trical shock and fire. Electrical shock occurs when the body becomes part of the electric circuit. The effect of an electric shock may range from a slight tingling sensation, and severe burns, to immediate cardiac arrest. The severity and effects of an electrical shock depend on four main factors:
The current’s path through the body
The amount of current flowing through the body
The length of time the current passes through the body
Whether the skin is wet or dry
Even if the electrical current is too small to cause injury, a person’s reaction to the shock may cause them to fall, result- ing in bruises, lacerations, broken bones, or even death. In addition to the electrical shock hazards, sparks from electrical equipment can serve as an ignition source for flammable or explosive vapors or combustible dust.
Electrical safety 101
Laboratory personnel can significantly minimize electrical hazards by following basic safety guidelines. Workers should always maintain awareness of the condition of laboratory equipment and ensure that it is in operable condition. Equip- ment with frayed or damaged cords, missing ground prongs, cracked tool casings, etc., should be removed from service
Lab Safety Resource Guide
Lab Safety Resource Guide
immediately. Defective equipment should then be tagged and repaired by a qualified electrician or discarded and replaced. Ensure that all electrical outlets are properly grounded and can accept three-prong plugs. All electrical equipment should have a three-pronged, grounded plug or be double-insulated. Do not use 3-to-2 prong adapters.
Minimize the potential for water or chemical spills near electrical equipment. Ensure that any outlets near sinks and potentially other wet locations have ground-fault circuit pro- tection. Ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) disconnect the current if a ground-fault is detected and protect the user from electric shock.
Electrical outlets, wiring, and other electrical equipment— whether integral to the building or used in the laborato- ry—should only be serviced and repaired by qualified trades personnel or other qualified electricians. Repair work on hardwired equipment must only be carried out by qualified individuals who have received Lockout/Tagout training.
Fuses, circuit breakers, and ground-fault circuit interrupters (GFCIs) are three well-known devices designed to automati- cally cut power when certain dangerous situations occur. Fus- es and circuit breakers are designed to protect the laborato- ries’ electrical systems from overheating and fire and control the electrical current for a specific outlet or room. If too much current flows (based upon the wire’s diameter and resistance rating), the wire may get hot and start a fire. To prevent this, fuses or circuit breakers detect when too much electricity is flowing and will blow fuses or trip circuit breakers.
All of a laboratory’s fuses or breakers are located in a main breaker or panel box. Every breaker box also includes a master switch, which cuts power to the entire laboratory at once. This overload protection is beneficial for equipment left on for extended periods or when too many devices are plugged into the same outlet. Overloading not only can cause overheated wires and arcing but can cause electrical shock and fire.
In contrast to fuses and circuit breakers, a GFCI is a special- ized outlet with a built-in breaker. These devices are designed to prevent shock in the event an electrical device comes in contact with water. If the equipment were to contact with water, the breaker inside the GFCI would trip, automatical- ly switching off the current. All power outlets that could be exposed to wet conditions, such as near a sink or where a leak or spillage could occur, should be equipped with GFCIs.
Grounding and bonding
Electrical grounding and bonding are essential safety practic- es for preventing static discharge and reducing the possibility of a fire. The bonding and grounding process can be defined as providing an electrically conductive pathway between
a dispensing container, a receiving container, and an earth ground. This pathway helps eliminate the buildup of static electricity by allowing it to dissipate into the ground safely.
All flammable liquids [defined by the fire code as having a flashpoint of less than 100°F (38°C)] need to be bonded and grounded during dispensing. Transferring a liquid from one metal container to another may result in static electrical sparks. It is important to bond metal dispensing and receiving containers together before pouring to prevent the buildup of static electricity and prevent sparks from causing a fire.
Bonding is accomplished by making an electrical connection from one metal container to the other. This ensures that there will be no difference in electrical potential between the two containers, and, therefore, no sparks will be formed. Grounding is done by connecting the container to an already grounded object that will conduct electricity. This could be a
buried metal plate, a metallic underground gas piping system, metal water pipes, or a grounded, metal building framework.
Lab refrigerator electrical safety
Whenever a refrigerator or freezer is needed to store flamma- ble liquids, a UL-listed flammable materials storage refriger- ator or freezer is required. Flammable material refrigerators and freezers are designed to prevent the ignition of flammable vapors inside the storage compartment, as these units do not have any internal ignition sources.
When refrigeration or freezing of flammable materials is needed, and the air outside the refrigerator might be ex- plosive, explosion-proof refrigerators are required. Explo- sion-proof refrigerators are designed to prevent the ignition of flammable vapors or gases that may be present inside or outside the storage compartment. It is generally used in a work area where flammable liquids will evaporate, and vapors can build up inside or outside the unit. A good example would be a location such as a solvent dispensing room where an explosive atmosphere may develop at some time in the room.
All ordinary domestic refrigerators and freezers should be labeled with the phrase, “No materials with a flashpoint below 100° F (38°C) may be stored in this refrigerator/ freezer,” or “Not for flammable storage.”
Lab Safety Resource Guide
Explosion-proof models require special hazardous-location hardwiring rather than simple cord and plug connections. This refrigerator type is not plugged into a wall receptacle but hardwired directly into the building’s electrical system. Standard use refrigerators cannot be used to store flammable materials.
Know the location and how to operate shut-off switches and circuit breaker panels so that power can be promptly shut down in the event of a fire or electrical accident. Be sure to always leave at least a three-foot clearance around electrical panels for ready access.
Plan for what steps will be taken in the event of a power loss. Loss of electrical power can create hazardous situations. If fume hoods cease to operate, the hoods may release flam- mable or toxic vapors into the laboratory. If a refrigerator or freezer fails to work, harmful vapors may be emitted as stored chemicals warm. If magnetic or mechanical stirrers fail to operate, safe mixing of reagents may be compromised.
All laboratory workers must be trained in, and be familiar with, applicable emergency procedures [29 CFR 1910.1450(f) (4)(i)(C)]. They should be able to safely respond to laboratory
fire and electrical shock incidents, and be able to evacuate personnel, and call for emergency assistance. Employees should know the location of the fire alarm pull station, fire extinguishers, main panel box, exits, shower/eye wash, first aid kit, and emergency telephone numbers.
OSHA standard 1910.151(b) requires the employer to ensure prompt first aid treatment for injured employees. Emergency medical services can be provided either onsite by a person trained in first aid, or by ensuring that emergency treatment services, such as an infirmary, clinic, or hospital, are in near proximity to the workplace.
OSHA standards address electrical safety
Employers are responsible for complying with the Occupa- tional Safety and Health Administration’s (OSHA) general industry electrical safety standards as published in 29 Code of Federal Regulations (CFR), 1910 Subpart S -Electrical. Subpart S addresses electrical safety requirements for the practical safeguarding of workers in their workplaces.
OSHA’s electrical standards are based on the National Fire Protection Association standards (NFPA), NFPA 70, National Electrical Code (NEC), and NFPA 70E, Standard for Electri- cal Safety in the Workplace.
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Lab Manager 8
When to Upgrade Your Lab’s Biological Safety Cabinet
BSCs are crucial for the safety of staff and the protection of products, so it’s important to know when these units should be upgraded
by Lauren Everett, Rachel Muenz, and Ajay Manuel, PhD
While a well-treated biological safety cabinet (BSC) can last for decades, it is also crucial for the safety of staff and the protection of products, so it’s important to know when a BSC should be upgraded.
Luckily, many of the physical signs of needing a new BSC are easy to recognize. As one example, rust or corrosion on the outside or inside of the cabinet is a red flag to replace your existing BSC. It’s also important for lab managers to observe the ergonomics of their lab’s BSC relative to their staff’s daily work. Modern BSCs boast integrated cabinet display screens at eye level for easy viewing of filter life and alarms and have improved the way users work in BSCs. Spending as much as your budget allows to obtain devices with optimal features is recommended as safety should never be compromised. A less obvious sign that it is time to consider an upgraded model is the potential energy savings. Experts state that modern BSCs are more energy efficient than older, ‘energy hog’ BSCs that use AC motors. Switching to a newer, modern DC motor Class II BSC may have several benefits.
As with many other types of lab equipment, when replace- ment parts for your BSC are becoming scarce or are unavail- able, you’ll need to consider purchasing a new unit. Addi- tionally, a BSC that requires repetitive servicing to keep it running or that has failed its annual NSF certification test is one that has reached the end of its life cycle. But if you only need to protect a product in your lab, rather than the oper- ators, you may not even need a BSC—another option like a clean bench may suffice.
Even if funds to purchase a new BSC are very limited, there are still quality options available. Here are a few tips for buyers on a budget:
Take the time to do your research on the options available to ensure you get the best all-around value
Investigate leasing programs
If you manage an academic lab, some vendors offer spe- cial pricing
Because BSCs are capable of lasting so long, many lab man- agers may be unaware of the newer features of modern BSCs. The greatest improvements to BSC technology are safety, performance, and comfort. The lack of airflow compensation systems to monitor and adjust cabinet performance to protect users and samples hindered many BSCs manufactured prior to 2007. Modern BSCs are now able to produce and maintain precision airflows helping combine sterility and safety with an energy-efficient environment. Additionally, monitoring and documentation are important, especially in controlled, GMP environments. The touchscreen interface and connectivity functions of modern BSCs ensure the preservation of perfor- mance data, providing for adequate document process control and protection measures that older BSCs cannot offer.
Lab Safety Resource Guide
Lab Safety Resource Guide
When shopping for a new BSC, don’t get hyper-focused looking just at the sale price. Try to aim for a manufactur- er who provides balance cutting-edge innovation without
compensating on cabinet life. Also choose a manufacturer that offers post-purchase support. According to experts, signs of
a highly-supportive manufacturer include those that offer a warranty of at least five years, provide easily accessible tech- nical support, and have a good reputation with certifiers who test BSCs after installation.
Other tips to keep in mind during and after the purchase of your new BSC include:
Make sure the BSC fits the space and workflow
Look for a BSC that includes features to support cleaning, such as a UV germicidal light and stainless-steel surfaces
Ask questions such as what the power consumption is, if spares are readily available, cost of filters, how long the warranty is, and if you really need to exhaust to atmosphere
Take advantage of training from the vendor once you’ve purchased the new BSC to ensure you and your staff use it properly
Do a proper risk assessment through your biosafety office
Consider the steps involved to safely decommission your lab’s old BSC, if needed. This may include fumigation and ensuring proper steps are taken to dispose of the instru- ment properly
How to ensure a long life for your new BSC
After you’ve made a purchasing decision for a new BSC, there are two simple tips to ensure the longevity of the unit. The first is to have the BSC certified upon installation, and then
at least once per year, ensuring you have adequate support for any issues that may occur later in the cabinet’s life. The second tip is simple—clean the BSC regularly. This means after each use and immediately after any spills. A deep clean is also recommended every few weeks.
While BSCs can run well for decades before needing re- placement, features aimed at improving efficiency, safety, and ergonomics have become standard in modern models. If your BSC is more than 20 years old, it is time to evaluate how these new features could benefit your staff and lab’s workflows. It may be worth the investment.
Innovations in Personal Protective Equipment
COVID-19 led researchers to get creative in solving problems with respirators and other PPE
by Jonathan Klane, M.S.ED., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT, Rachel Muenz
Imagine what it was like being a health care worker or lab employee near the start of the COVID-19 pandemic and not having enough personal protective equipment (PPE). This forced many to come up with creative solutions to stay safe. PPE is now part of everyday life, but problems such as ill-fit- ting face masks and gowns for health care workers as well as some being forced to reuse disposable PPE due to supply and logistics chain challenges are still plaguing us.
This need to innovate PPE led many researchers and companies to create new products and recraft existing ones, making them more effective and sustainable. The research roundup highlighted here can’t be exhaustive. The few examples of innovations below demonstrate how PPE is advancing and evolving. Face coverings were mostly omitted as they’re not technically PPE, though they were used by some for their protection.
Innovations often stem from great needs while we’re under tight constraints. Access to enough PPE was a major issue over the last couple of years, with hospitals and clinical labs run- ning out due to demand outrunning supplies. Many decided to solve this using DIY solutions. Some companies and uni- versities teamed up with partners to create new PPE designs and 3D-printed face shields and respirator masks. Hospitals innovated too—in one example, a Toronto doctor modified plastic bags to protect health care workers who remove venti- lator tubes from patients’ throats.
Non-PPE companies opted for PPE innovation. Three-ply cotton masks approved by the US Food and Drug Adminis- tration (FDA) became a substitute for N95 masks in critical needs areas. There was even a pivot from potable alcohol to manufacturing hand sanitizer.
Building better PPE
Along with inspiring PPE innovations, the pandemic fostered research to improve PPE effectiveness and materials. An example involves creating a special fabric using metal-organic frameworks that can deactivate both chemical and biologi-
cal threats, including the SARS-CoV-2 virus. The material, developed by researchers at Northwestern University, is reus- able, requiring a quick bleach treatment after being exposed to various hazards, thus being more sustainable.
Research to develop new filters could lead to respiratory improvements. Recently, University of California, Riverside researchers, and George Washington University colleagues captured 99.9 percent of coronavirus aerosols using nano- fibers. The filter is produced via low-cost electrospinning,
Lab Safety Resource Guide
Lab Safety Resource Guide
potentially enabling it to be mass-produced, according to a May 2021 press release. A year earlier, research in ACS Nano from King Abdullah University of Science and Technology showcased improved, replaceable filters for N95 masks. The filter has a self-cleaning, hydrophobic membrane, according to a press release.
Alternatives to N95 masks have also been a key focus area, with one option developed by Brigham and Women’s Hospital and Massachusetts Institute of Technology researchers. Their transparent, elastomeric, adaptable, long-lasting respirator uses sensors to ensure a proper fit and let wearers know when filters are saturated. In a small study with 40 participants, the respirator achieved excellent filter exchange, breathability, fit, and 100 percent fit-testing success. The respirator is greener than current N95s as it can be sterilized multiple times.
Since the pandemic’s beginnings, many researchers innovated to solve PPE problems. These solutions include extenders to make surgical masks more comfortable, materials that deac- tivate the virus, and coatings applied to N95s making them easier to decontaminate and thus antiviral.
Researchers’ work aimed to make PPE easier to decontam- inate and develop new devices and methods for PPE decon- tamination. University of California, Los Angeles researchers and colleagues showed that N95 masks could be safely decon- taminated and reused through various methods, including vaporized hydrogen peroxide (VHP). Other research showed similar results, and VHP is now often used for decontami- nating PPE.
Subsequent research confirmed the effectiveness of other decontamination methods. Research from a University of Southampton team published in AIP Advances in October 2021 developed a method using low-temperature plasma tech- nology to remove 99.99 percent of coronavirus from face mask respirators while still allowing the masks to be safely reused, cutting costs and reducing waste.
Other work involved developing new devices to decontami- nate PPE, such as a compact “portable rack hanging device” created at Florida Atlantic University in November 2020 that uses ultraviolet-C light to sterilize up to six masks at once.
The device can decontaminate N95 respirators and cloth masks worn by the general public.
If you were wondering how such decontamination methods change N95 masks, so did researchers. Two national research facilities at the University of Saskatchewan—the Canadi-
an Light Source and the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Organization-International Vaccine Centre—teamed up to use advanced X-ray techniques to explore how different
decontamination methods affected mask materials microscop- ically and what causes the fibers to degrade. The work will help manufacturers improve their products so they can be safely decontaminated by as many methods as possible, and last longer.
Innovations that may lead to improvements
The pandemic also led to research that brought us greater insight into how factors such as fit affect how well PPE works and may lead to further innovations. A team at the University of California, Davis found that, despite leakage around the edges, surgical masks still effectively reduced the number of aerosols produced from coughing or talking. Mask leakage is a significant concern among industrial hygienists. Though the study was small, involving just 12 volunteers, it helped con- firm wearing a mask is important, even if you’re not wearing it perfectly.
The effects of face shape on PPE performance and improve- ments have also been a major focus. A team at Florida State University received an $800,000 grant from the National Science Foundation to better understand the mechanics and flow physics of face masks, how they fit various users, and how protection can be improved. This should lead to better options for all face types.
Developing better PPE materials could also help make masks and other products more effective at protecting people
from viruses such as SARS-CoV-2. During the pandemic, hundreds of research projects developed new materials to improve PPE or the creation of new products. Work from the École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne involved creating new filter material from titanium oxide nanowires that can trap and kill pathogens. The material could help improve masks worn by the general public. Another filter material developed by researchers from Korea Advanced Institute
of Science and Technology could also improve face masks, making them reusable while still maintaining effectiveness. In March 2020, the team was awaiting approval in Korea to sell the product, but it’s unclear if it’s currently being used. Much research has also been done on the effectiveness of current materials used in both cloth masks and N95s, which should lead to improvements.
Lab Safety Resource Guide
Tackling the PPE waste problem
The increased PPE use was effective at protecting lab workers and others, but it increased PPE waste and pollution. Besides reusable PPE, this led researchers to innovate improved waste management.
A team of researchers from University of York, University of the Sunshine Coast, and the University of Tasmania looked to the past to solve this. They examined it through an archaeo- logical lens to understand cultures by their waste materials, thus providing a unique perspective on the problem of envi- ronmental pollution.
Research also focused on improving PPE recycling or refor- mulating it entirely. Research in the journal Biofuels shows
how PPE could be turned into biofuels using pyrolysis, while similar work from Cornell University scientists in Renewable and Sustainable Energy Reviews proposed reverting PPE to its original forms and into fuels.
The future of PPE
Innovations often stem from great needs while we’re under tight constraints, as demonstrated above. PPE improvements are likely to continue now that we’ve seen what we can do. The continued impact of COVID-19 and other challenging risks will create opportunities for more innovation. The need to reuse or conserve PPE will inspire other green, sustainable approaches. It’s only a matter of time until the next need for PPE innovations occurs.
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