Containment and Contagion: How Far Do We Go?

One of my favorite older horror movies is The Shining. The acting, the music, and the pace of the story create a good long scare for the audience. In one scene, the mother and child are playing in an outdoor maze constructed of tall bushes. Later in the film they would be running for their lives in that selfsame maze, but I do not want to give away any spoilers if you haven’t watched it. The maze sometimes reminds me of some laboratory departments that I have seen, and I have seen how winding hallways and multiple doorways create confusion for lab employees and others in the facility.

The International Organization for Standardization (ISO) states in its standard Medical Laboratories — Requirements for Safety (ISO 15190:2020) that clean and dirty areas need complete separation from floor to ceiling. For example, the break room must be a completely separate room from the space where lab work is performed. While not all laboratories are ISO-certified, this is clearly an infection control and safety best practice. The Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) has been known to enforce this when they cite labs for incomplete separation of clean and dirty areas.

The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) published its resource, Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories (BMBL-6th Edition) in 2020, and it requires a hand hygiene sink near the exit of laboratories so that hands can be washed before exiting the department. That means door handles inside the department must be considered clean and not touched with gloved hands.

Think about those requirements and apply them to your lab space(s). Do they work? Do they make sense to you? If you work in a Biosafety (BSL) 2 or 3 laboratory, you should understand the basics of pathogen containment. After all, the Biosafety Level of your laboratory is determined by the infectivity of pathogens present, the severity of disease they could cause, their transmissibility, and the nature of the work conducted. Based on risk and task assessments, labs should utilize the personal protective equipment (PPE) appropriate for the tasks performed, and that PPE should never be brought outside of the laboratory (another OSHA regulation).

One of the most common questions I receive from lab safety professionals is how to improve PPE compliance. The answer is, we need to make it easy for our staff to do the right thing. That means providing education so they understand the consequences of unsafe behaviors, and it means putting practices in place that make sense and are easy to follow.

In my travels I have seen labs that require that gloves must be removed before touching lab telephones and keyboards. I have seen specimen transport policies that allow for the use of wearing one glove for holding specimens and keeping the other hand clean to touch doors, and I have also seen staff who are told to keep a glove on to touch all lab door handles. If your staff are required to figure out that crazy maze of practices, they are not ever all going to get it right, and someone is going to acquire an infection.

If you require all gloves to be removed and hands to be cleaned before exiting the lab (as you should), are there sinks and waste cans at the exits? If lab coats must be hung up before going into the break room or rest room (as they should be), do you provide coat hooks near those doors? If staff must leave one BSL2 lab and walk through a clean hallway to deliver specimens to another lab, what do they wear? Do they wear their PPE (violating OSHA’s regulation) and do they touch door handles with gloves that other staff will use without gloves when leaving the department for the day?

Lab Acquired Infections (LAIs) are vastly under-reported, and many time people do not even realize how they got infected. There are probably many lab practices (like the ones mentioned above) that lead to these. Could this happen in your workplace? How can you prevent it?

Start, as always, with a risk assessment. Determine the hazards in your workplace, create hazard mitigation steps, and determine if any residual risks still exist. Take a good look at your physical layout. Can a “clean” hallway be designated as “dirty?” Would something as simple as adding a door to close off a hallway make it so safety regulations can be followed? Those risk assessments and diagrams used as a show-and-tell for facility leadership can often be what gets you the approval or funds you might need to make those changes. Correcting those unsafe practices and those long lab winding hallways and exits will certainly make it easy for staff to find the way in and out while containing the pathogens where they should be.

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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