Lab Manager | Run Your Lab Like a Business
Procedure of evacuation, emergency map vector illustration. Cartoon people with megaphone notice about safe exit from building in case of disasters and accidents with arrows on floor plan scheme

Laboratory Crisis Planning and Response 

Essential steps and lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic to better prepare labs and protect their assets before an emergency strikes

Tracy Durnan, MBA

Tracy Wieder has worked in the field of biomedical research for 30 years, starting as a lab technician, then moving into lab manager roles, lab director roles, and finally into her current role overseeing all research laboratories at the University of Alaska at Fairbanks and is a recognized expert on disaster preparedness and safety.

ViewFull Profile.
Learn about ourEditorial Policies.
Register for free to listen to this article
Listen with Speechify

March 2020 marked a drastic shift for the laboratory industry as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Many work environments were given just a few days’ notice to shut down in an effort to avoid further spread of the virus. Others continued to work tirelessly to support our citizens, including clinical labs performing COVID-19 testing and research labs working to find a vaccine. 

There are many lessons lab managers can learn from the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure they are prepared for future crises that can (and will) occur, whether it’s another pandemic, a natural disaster, loss of power, or other type of lab crisis. 

Get training in Asset Management and earn CEUs.One of over 25 IACET-accredited courses in the Academy.
Asset Management Course

Here are my top three tips for laboratory crisis preparedness, inspired by the impact and challenges that emerged from the COVID-19 pandemic: 

Plan for disruptions in staffing

Many labs were operating with a skeleton crew during the COVID-19 pandemic, due to a variety of reasons, from lab staff contracting COVID-19 and needing to quarantine to needing to care for sick loved ones or children who were not allowed to attend school or daycare in person. To help plan for staffing disruptions in the future, ensure all staff have access to adequate computers that can be brought home as well as reliable internet connections should they need to work from home. Planning in advance will help to alleviate the endless computer problems and internet connectivity challenges that many of us suffered through while working from home during COVID-19.

Conduct work from home drills every six months to anticipate problems in advance and correct them. This involves sending all staff home for a day that can reasonably do at least some of their job remotely. Staff are to treat work-from-home drills as normal work days, keeping notes regarding any issues they have at home that could slow down their productivity or prevent them from working remotely in the future. Efforts should be made to hold online meetings on these days so that video conferencing equipment can be tested, as well as internet speeds. The following day, the team should meet to discuss the problems encountered during the drill and how they can be resolved. 

Managing staff shortages

Cross-train employees so that if staff are limited, they can cover each other’s duties because they have been trained in all laboratory techniques being done in the lab. Evaluate what functions are most critical for your lab and determine what staff and resources are necessary to keep those functions going. Look into possibilities to outsource critical functions. This advanced planning will allow critical functions to continue if staffing shortages require a reduction in functions. 

Advanced planning will also allow you to determine when you have reached the point where you can no longer continue to function at all and must shut down.

Supply chain delays

During COVID-19, we also experienced big problems with the supply chain, which made getting needed lab equipment and supplies difficult—sometimes impossible. So, even the staff who were still at work had difficulty functioning due to a lack of availability of supplies they needed, including PPE. If the supply chain is disrupted, work with your vendors and purchasing department to source supplies that are difficult to find. These professionals are often aware of opportunities that the rest of us may not know about. If there is an opportunity to plan and order large amounts of supplies that are expected to be in short supply later, then do so. For example, as labs were beginning to consider returning to work during the COVID-19 pandemic, it was already known by many vendors that there were going to be shortages for lab supplies. Some institutions reacted quickly, establishing bulk orders for these supplies to allow their researchers access to critical lab supplies in the future. Speaking with vendors is a great way to find out what items are currently backordered and what items can be obtained easily. Vendors will also have an idea as to how long the delays will last, and what items will be delayed in the future that are still available now. 

It's also important to time your orders appropriately. Ensure you submit orders for supplies well before running out of them.

These three tips offer a great starting point to better prepare your lab for unknown future crises. But because crises can take on many forms, having a robust plan in place as well as detailed roles and action items for all members of the lab is crucial to keeping the lab functioning during unexpected shutdowns or other events. 

The Lab Crisis Preparation course, offered by Lab Manager Academy, covers everything you need to know, including 18 steps to improve your lab’s crisis preparation plan.

Topics in Lab Manager Academy’s Lab Crisis Preparation Course

  • Strategies for protecting:
    low-temp samples
    unique animal strains
    unique cell lines
    computer data
  • Identifying which records are critical in making insurance claims for damaged equipment and reagents
  • Case studies comparing the effects of labs who were well prepared in advance for crises and disasters versus those who had not prepared in advance 

Crisis preparation plans are crucial to enable laboratories to recover from a disaster. Crises and emergencies are a fact of life. If one were to happen tomorrow, would your lab be prepared? If your answer is, “no,” or “probably not,” then this course is for you. Learn more at