2020 will be a year for many to remember, no matter your profession. If you worked in a laboratory, though, you know many things happened along the way which were both difficult and unexpected, and much of the year was consumed with work surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. Changes and challenges came along which would test the resiliency of any lab safety professional. With luck, though, there were good lessons learned and new ideas about how to face certain lab safety issues in the future.
The Fear of Biohazards
One of the earliest challenges many lab leaders faced this year was dealing with the fears of staff who would have to work with COVID-19 patients and 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 handling any specimens, and people began unnecessary practices like double-bagging swabs or wearing gloves when transporting specimens.
Getting employees to deal with those fears and to continue to work became a priority for many very quickly. Many lab leaders conducted meetings and educational sessions. It was important to remind staff that they usually handled specimens every day which contain bacteria and other viruses that could be as harmful to them. They had to remember that if they used Standard Precautions with all samples, they could remain safe. 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, lab staff need regular information about the proper handling of the hazards they work with and knowledge about how to remain safe on the job.
Another challenge that arose was trying to keep up with the changes in recommendations for PPE use in the lab and for those who collected COVID-19 swab specimens. In the beginning of the year, masks were not required in the workplace, but that changed. Then cloth masks were not allowed in some organizations. The use of face shields or goggles was mandated, in some locations they were even required in break rooms and hallways. Phlebotomists who once wore only gloves now had to wear gowns, masks and face shields, and in some instances N95 respirators were used. These changes required education, training and an explanation for staff as to why the extra PPE was necessary.
Changes also came to how laboratorians would utilize PPE. Because of international shortages of supplies, the CDC provided information about extended use and re-use of the 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 UV lighting or a hydrogen peroxide vapor treatment. Laboratorians and other healthcare workers learned how to extend the normal wear time of N95 respirators, masks, and other disposable PPE and how to store items rather than toss them out. While PPE supply issues seem to have calmed down, labs learned many lessons about how to handle such shortages in the future.
As the pandemic progressed, many labs were asked to bring on board new COVID-19 testing. This testing typically had to be brought on board quickly, and in some cases new laboratory space had to be found. Many considerations had to be discussed such as room ventilation, safety equipment (BSCs, eyewash stations, spill kits, etc.), and proper specimen transport.
The best approach for this (as with any new process in the lab) is to conduct a complete risk assessment. One method is to identify the risks associated with the new testing, rate the likelihood and consequences of potential hazards in the process, and then implement steps to mitigate those hazards. Performing these assessments routinely and reviewing them will help to keep your staff safe as work continues in the department all year.
The COVID-19 pandemic affected other areas of work in the laboratory. Accreditation agencies delayed inspections, and now they are trying virtual auditing. Staffing levels are affected by virus exposures in the community or within the department, and while organizations do their best to follow national safety guidance, many have different approaches. The pandemic is not over, and soon healthcare workers will be offered a vaccine. What new lessons will we continue to learn as the situation continues to develop? Time will tell. The important thing for lab leadership is to stand for what keeps those in their department safe. Continue to follow standard precautions, and escalate issues when the unusual occurs. Remember, we will get through this, but as we do, take the opportunity to learn from the experience this year and when moving ahead!
–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.