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Responding to Biological Exposures

Do you work with cell lines, human or animal blood or bodily fluids, viral vectors, recombinant/synthetic nucleic acids, biological toxins, or live pathogens? Accidental exposure to one of these can be a scary thing. Recognizing the hazards associated with your work and following best safety practices can prevent many incidents, but not all of them. Just make sure that the first time you read this GBP is before an accident happens. 

To prevent accidents, be proactive and think things through. Identify risky procedures in advance so you can take steps to prevent exposures, such as wearing eye protection or using safety sharps. If you have a “near miss” (for example, you almost drop a culture bottle because it is not secured in a rack, or you almost stick yourself with a needle because it was not secured safely) that could happen again, tell your supervisor and try to fix it.

Before Performing First Aid

  • Remember that time is of the essence – Do not wait to wash out your wound or seek follow up attention. If you manage to inoculate yourself with a pathogen, the incubation period could be short and the window to receive effective treatment or therapies could be even shorter.

  • Stay calm and act fast to minimize potential harm to yourself or others.

First Aid for a Percutaneous Injury

In the event of a percutaneous (through the skin) injury involving biohazardous material, immediately:

  • Wash the site immediately and thoroughly with soap and water (without scrubbing). Do not use harsh detergents or abrasive scrubbing on wounds. This can just exacerbate the injury or introduce new hazards into the body (chemicals, etc.).

  • Do not suck the site with your mouth. You could be contaminating your mouth and digestive tract with the material you are trying to remove from the wound.
  • Follow the “After Performing First Aid” steps below

 First Aid for a Mucous Membrane Exposure

In the event of an exposure to the mucous membranes (eyes, nose, mouth) involving biohazardous material, immediately:

  • Flush the affected areas immediately and thoroughly with water. Use an eyewash if available and keep your eyelids open. Do not use harsh detergents or abrasive scrubbing on wounds. This can just exacerbate the injury or introduce new hazards into the body (chemicals, etc.).

  • Follow the “After Performing First Aid” steps below

 After Performing First Aid

  • Report the incident immediately to your supervisor. Don’t keep your exposure a secret or wait “a day or two” to say something. This inevitably will do more harm than good. 

  • Seek medical evaluation
    • For students, seek medical attention at Cornell Health or local primary care provider.
    • For faculty and staff, seek medical evaluation with a primary care provider. Cornell Health does not see employees for post-exposure care. 
  • Report the details of your exposure event through the Cornell University Injury/Illness/Exposure Reporting system as soon as you can (preferably within 24 hours). This is your official documentation that the incident happened, and allows EHS to come and work with you to minimize any further incidents in your lab or elsewhere. Further, there may be additional reporting requirements, such as to the NIH, depending on the type of exposure involved. You will not get in trouble with EHS if you submit an accident report, and you will help others who may learn from your experience.

Important Phone Numbers:

In cases of emergency, including those listed above, keep these numbers handy:

  • Dial 911 from the lab or 607-255-1111 from your cell phone if you think this is something you can’t/shouldn’t handle alone. Notify a lab mate and your supervisor as soon as you can…don’t be afraid to ask for help.

  • Cornell Health Occupational Medicine 607-255-6960 Please notify Cornell Health the next business day (after receiving medical evaluation) so that they can help follow up with any related response activities.
  • EHS 607-255-8200 if you have non-emergency questions. Do not call EHS if you are having an emergency.

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