How Prepared Is Your Lab for a Natural Disaster?
By Iva Fedorka
Damages caused to laboratories and scientific institutions by crises and natural disasters can directly impact your research and threaten the safety of humans and research animals.
Stories from disasters are compelling: the researcher who lost decades of work on a unique mouse lineage; a student who couldn’t graduate; the young investigator whose samples were ruined by a power outage. The consequences of disasters are numerous, extensive, and have ripple effects that can often only be recognized in hindsight.
Although you can’t totally prepare for disasters and emergencies, you can improve your crisis resilience by assessing assets and risks, developing communication methods, creating a plan, and improving your future responses by evaluating procedures and protocols following any event.
Document Your Assets
Know your assets and where they’re located. Include facilities, equipment, instruments, and other laboratory supplies and materials, but also consider assets like people, information, and supply chains.
Asset identification can be complex, but it’s essential. Maintain a complete list of current physical assets and regularly update non-static asset data like changes in employees, office locations, suppliers, and other key factors. Compile and centralize your documentation to maintain a complete picture of your laboratory that you can use to adjust your risk assessments and monitors.
Assess Your Risks
The likelihood of hurricanes, wildfires, tornados, and snowstorms may be seasonal or geography-based, and buildings located on flood plains will be more prone to water damage.
While making your assessments, identify risks that could be reduced:
- Can electrical systems, back-up generators, and animal facilities located in basements or flood-prone areas be relocated?
- Are storage shelves, animal cages and racks, and other equipment and instruments fastened to walls or benches?
- Are fire extinguishers, safety showers, eye washes, and other devices inspected or tested regularly?
Be proactive, not reactive when considering risk levels. Monitor equipment and instrument sensors and check messages from social media aggregators. If your location puts you at further risk, incorporate real-time alerts about earthquakes, wind speeds, flooding, storm surge, air quality, volcanic eruptions, tsunamis, and other potential events.
Establish communication procedures and use technology to help create effective mass notifications to staff and key stakeholders. Telephone, email, and SMS text messages are still the most common and effective means of communication, but maintaining some system-independent devices, like battery-powered walkie-talkies, may provide a workable alternative.
Make a Plan
After you have identified your assets and risks, define standard operating procedures (SOPs) and develop a Continuity of Operations Plan (COOP) for disasters and emergencies. These protocols can help produce measured and timely responses. Although they cannot address every risk scenario, they can help mitigate operational impacts and address compliance issues. Referring to these procedures during emergency events or disasters may help you identify additional or indirect concerns that may not be immediately obvious.
Keep copies of your SOPs and disaster plans readily available in central locations so response teams and others can quickly access them.
After any emergency event, review and revise your processes to improve response speed and effectiveness. Regardless of the scale, type, or frequency of the event, consider how you can:
- Improve alert mechanisms
- Identify and protect the assets closest to the threat
- Communicate more effectively
- Increase collaboration for a more comprehensive response
Audit and document the decisions and time frames to understand your plan’s effectiveness. Create an automated audit log of when information was received and when decisions were made. Determine best practices and add them to your SOPs for future use to improve your resilience during and in the aftermath of future crises. And adopt policies that leverage new data management and reporting technologies to identify and mitigate disruptions and safety risks.
To learn more about creating a COOP, visit fishersci.com/lab-coop and read the article “Plan for Unexpected Lab Interruptions” in Lab Reporter Issue 3, 2021.
Iva Fedorka is a Thermo Fisher Scientific staff writer.