COVID-19 Q&A: Laboratory Safety

The evolving COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world already- the way we educate, the way we conduct business, and way we socialize (or don’t). In the lab setting, there are many practices and procedures that are now being questioned. Sometimes the answer changes quickly, sometimes there is national guidance to assist with a particular issue, and sometimes your own facility or organization makes the decisions for you. As a lab safety consultant, I have received many lab safety questions about handling certain situations in these times, and I want to share some of those because others may be wondering the same thing.

Q: Should nurses or other staff come into the laboratory wearing surgical masks, even if they are taking care of COVID-19 patients?

A: Yes, it is acceptable and safe for nurses and other staff to enter the lab wearing surgical masks (unless a company policy prohibits it). Remember, if someone else wears a surgical mask, that protects you, NOT them. Even if the employee is taking care of a COVID-19 patient, science tells us that virus particles are not falling off their mask. It is generally safe for people to enter the department wearing a surgical mask.

Q: Should nurses or other staff come into the department wearing gloves?

A: No, it is generally not acceptable for others to enter (or exit) the lab wearing gloves. Door handles should be considered clean. If specimens are being delivered, the outside of the bag/container being carried is considered clean (even if a COVID-19 specimen is inside). Post signage to remind non-lab staff to remove gloves, and notify people immediately if you see them using gloves to enter or exit the lab.

Q: My lab co-worker seems to be sick. Can I tell them to go home or self-quarantine?

A: No. As an employee you do not have the right to approach a co-worker or dictate to them how to proceed. If you have concerns, escalate them to the manager. If you’re the manager, contact your employee health department. That is the department that can best determine who needs to be sent home for isolation. Remember, there are many other reasons people cough, sneeze, or have a runny nose. For instance, allergy season is in full swing. Harassing a co-worker about their health would be considered a violation of Human Resources policy.

Q: How does laboratory staff maintain an appropriate social distance from each other while working?

A: The answer to this really depends on your lab set-up and processes. Is it possible for staff in smaller labs to change work patterns in order to better maintain a distance from co-workers? Try a different receiving location so that those from outside the department can drop off specimens from a distance, like placing a cart near the lab door. Some facilities require masking of all staff, and if that is the case, then social distancing while at work may not be an issue. Be sure to limit staff in break rooms as well, and make sure areas are disinfected regularly.

Q: Should autopsies be performed during this pandemic?

A: Some pathologists have suspended autopsies at this time. While it is possible to perform autopsies on COVID-19 patients safely using the appropriate PPE, many deem the use of such PPE to be unnecessary when so many others need it.

Q: Can PPE be disinfected and re-used safely?

A: Some locations have moved to reprocessing N95 respirators, surgical masks and isolation gowns. Make sure there are appropriate quality and safety checks being performed on this equipment before it is re-used. While some methods can disinfect items used for COVID-19 patients (i.e. UV light treatment, hydrogen peroxide mist, etc.), they have not been approved for the disinfection of tuberculosis. Therefore, if PPE has been used to protect staff from TB, it should not be reprocessed with the other PPE used for COVID-19 patients.

Q: Histology and cytology slides from fresh (unfixed) samples are made in the lab space and moved to offices for reading. Can these slides from potential COVID-19 patients be safely read in clean office areas?

A: This is a valid question at all times, not just during this pandemic, and the answer depends on the process used for making the slides. It is known that xylenes or solutions containing 60% ethanol or more easily inactivate COVID-19 and other pathogens. Slides made with these chemicals can safely be transferred to office areas for reading. Fresh tissue/sample slides using other methods (i.e. methanol fixation) should be read in the lab space only. Check your reagents in your slide stains to see if they eradicate pathogens. If not, check to see if it is possible to fix the slides in stronger ethanol solutions before staining.

These are just some of the many questions people are asking. There are references which can help to provide some of the answers (CDC.gov, WHO.int, OSHA.gov, etc.), but if you need more lab safety information, please feel free to send me questions at info@danthelabsafetyman.com. I will provide the most current safety guidance for your issue. This is a rapidly-changing situation, and information comes from many sources, Make sure you do your best to validate what you hear, and continue to use Standard Precautions and good behaviors to keep you and your laboratory staff safe from COVID-19 and other harmful pathogens.

Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) has over 25 years experience as a certified medical technologist. Today he is the Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He is also known as Dan the Lab Safety Man, a lab safety consultant, educator, and trainer.

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