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Health and Safety Guidance for Research During COVID-19 Pandemic

Health and Safety Guidance for Research During the COVID-19 Pandemic

This document provides guidance to mitigate community spread of coronavirus while working in a laboratory setting. Research plans must be approved, and lab workers must continue to comply with the requirements established by Cornell University and New York State. All personnel returning to campus must complete training EHS 2019 before their return.

Mitigating Community Spread During Approved Essential Research

The virus which causes COVID-19 is transmitted person-to-person via respiratory droplets. Exposure can occur by direct inhalation of aerosolized droplets or by touching a surface that the virus has been introduced to and then touching your mouth, eyes, or nose. People may be infectious without showing symptoms.

Stay home if you are ill.  All personnel must perform a daily Employee Mandatory Health Screening Assessment before coming to campus. If you become ill at work, avoid others, contact your supervisor, and go home. If you develop symptoms of COVID-19, immediately consult with your healthcare provider by telephone.

Distance: Keep at least 6 feet (2 meters) of separation between researchers. Work at separate benches, or every other bench. Place markers on the floor to maintain separation between workstations. Avoid performing non-lab activities like paperwork in the lab if it will help increase the distance between personnel. Post signs limiting the number of people allowed in a specific area. If possible, please limit elevator use.

Time: Minimize contact time between researchers, staggering schedules for staff, and use of shared equipment, offices, kitchens, or restrooms. Effort should be made to reduce the number of personnel and length of time spent in shared offices.

Contamination reduction: Assign specific work areas or processes to individual researchers when possible. Disinfect shared areas and equipment, especially “high-touch” locations like doorknobs, faucet handles at sinks, keyboards, light switches, before and after use. Whenever possible, reusable personal protective equipment (PPE) should only be used by a single individual. When work areas, equipment, or PPE must be shared, sanitize with a disinfectant approved for SARS-CoV-2 between uses and as personnel leave the lab. For high-touch surfaces in the lab that are difficult to decontaminate (e.g. microscope eyepieces, touch-screen control panels), keep a supply of plastic wrap nearby to cover the surface work beginning work, and remove it when done.

Cloth face coverings: Face coverings are community protective equipment, reducing the risk of you infecting others in case you have unknowingly become infectious. Please see the Cornell’s face coverings webpage for information on when and where face coverings are required, and how to obtain them.

It is acceptable to wear the same cloth face covering that you arrived with into and out of the lab. If there was no risk of exposure to hazardous materials without a face covering, there is no additional risk of contaminating a face covering. If you are concerned about contaminating a face covering, this may indicate a need to move a process into a fume hood or require personal protective equipment in place of community protective equipment.

Masks made of flammable material like rayon should not be used in a laboratory setting and must not be used around sources of heat or open flame. Address loose straps that could become caught in equipment. Clean your mask regularly and have a spare mask available at work in case it becomes soiled. Take care not to touch your mask with contaminated gloves.

Cloth face coverings must not be confused with personal protective equipment and do not supersede the requirement for respiratory protective equipment already in place. For example, surgical masks or respirators should be used in lieu of cloth face coverings during work in BSL2 Enhanced containment. In general, respiratory protection equipment requirements are determined through a local risk assessment with EHS.  If you have questions, contact askEHS@cornell.edu.

Good hand hygiene: Wash your hands upon arriving in the lab and before leaving. Wear gloves while in the lab and replace disposable gloves or disinfect reusable gloves frequently. Avoid touching your eyes, nose, and mouth. Wash your hands again when you arrive home. Do not wear gloves out of the lab.

Figure 1: Examples from the National University of Singapore

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Concerns About Working Alone in the Lab

While implementing social distancing, it is important to remember there can also be serious concerns about working alone in the lab. This is especially relevant while we are required to operate with reduced staffing in our buildings, since a person who is injured or in trouble may not be able to find help nearby. This section offers some suggestions to resolve the apparent conflict between the current acute need for social distancing with guidance from OSHA and Cornell’s Lab Safety Manual to avoid working alone in the lab.

It is up to each lab group to determine how best to manage both lab safety and COVID-19 exposure risks. Faculty and lab managers can contact their college safety representative or askEHS@cornell.edu for assistance.

Lab Safety and COVID-19 Exposure Risks

Risk Level

Example Activities

Low-Risk

Activities

Lab walkthroughs

Computer system checks/reboots

Medium-Risk Activities

Working with compressed gas cylinders or cryogens Working with some biohazards

Benchtop work with less hazardous materials

High-Risk Activities

Working at a chemical fume hood with hazardous substances such as acids, bases, toxic materials, acute biological toxins.

Working with high pressure, high voltage, or stored energy systems. Working with machine tools such as lathes, end mills, drill presses.

Start / Stop Check-ins (Low-Risk Activities)

For low-risk activities of short duration (10-15 minutes), one option may be to check in with another lab member before and after the activity, using social media, text, video chat, etc. If the partner does not hear back from the individual at the appropriate time and they are unreachable, the partner can contact CU Police (607-255-1111) to request a check on the lab.

RAVE Guardian Safety Timer (Low to Med Risk Activities)

The RAVE Guardian App (Apple Store or Google Play) provides a safety timer function that can help someone monitor a person working remotely. This function works best for shorter tasks (under 30 minutes) that have a well-defined duration.

Virtual Lab Partner (Medium- to High-Risk Activities)

For higher-risk activities and activities with variable duration, a virtual lab partner using video chat may be a good option. The device should be plugged in, and the camera should capture the entire work area so if an emergency occurs, the virtual lab partner will see it and notify CU Police. Don’t handle the video-chat device while wearing PPE and remember to disinfect devices regularly (e.g. AppleMotorola, Samsung).

Physical Lab Partner (High-Risk Activities)

Some lab activities might be risky enough to require another person to be present in the lab. Follow the above guidance for mitigating community spread, maintaining adequate distance between personnel.