When the CDC community levels are low, there are no restrictions on density or physical distancing in research laboratory spaces. Labs may operate at pre-pandemic capacity. However, there are some helpful things that can be implemented to reduce the potential for spread of COVID-19. These include:
- Labs should provide adequate disinfectants and establish disinfection routines for high-touch surfaces. Twice-per-day wiping of light switches, door handles and shared equipment can help keep those surfaces free of pathogens. In most cases, the disinfectant already in use for research purposes will also be effective against SARS-CoV-2.
- Ensure that hand sanitizer is readily available.
- Make it clear that personnel may wear a facial covering if they choose to, and that staff respects the choice of personnel that wish to wear a facial covering.
Laboratory Guidance for MEDIUM Workplace Community Levels
When the CDC community levels are at medium, laboratory personnel should review the COVID-19 Safety Plan to see what changes need to be made. These changes include the implementation of physical distancing and COVID-19 testing for unvaccinated workers. Labs should also follow the guidance in the 'Laboratory Guidance for LOW Workplace Community Levels' above. Specific additional requirements and recommendations are:
- Masks are encouraged but optional
- Physical distancing is mandatory. Personnel must maintain six feet of distancing at all times. Where six feet cannot be maintained, additional control measures (such as masks or additional PPE) may be required.
- Implementing worksite density limitations is optional. Workspace flexibilities should be considered.
- Research staff should schedule activities to minimize overcrowding laboratories. Experiments should be planned out to ensure that shared equipment and space is not overpopulated.
- Unvaccinated staff will be required to test weekly.
Laboratory Guidance for HIGH Workplace Community Levels
If the CDC workplace community level is elevated to high, the NIH will implement additional safety measures that can be found throughout this plan. Please review the NIH COVID-19 Safety Plan thoroughly for comprehensive guidance on operations.
Specifically, be sure to maintain at least six feet distance from co-workers. This may mean leaving at least one workspace/bench space open, separating you from co-workers. Density must be limited per guidance in the
Additional Personal Safety Guidance section. Consider workplace flexibilities such as reducing onsite population, increasing telework, working in shifts, or changing the orientation of seating and workspaces in laboratories and shared spaces. All staff are required to wear a mask while working in the lab. Visitors such as maintenance staff, IT help desk personnel, and delivery workers will be required to wear a mask as well at NIH locations.
ICO leadership will assess laboratory workspaces and procedures to identify measures that facilitate physical distancing and minimize the potential for personnel to come within six feet of one another. Example measures include:
- Limit occupancy based on current NIH guidance established in
Physical Distancing section.
- Eliminate or reduce processes that prevent effective physical distancing. For example, if processes can be performed virtually with a brief in-person visit to verify information or complete a hands-on procedure , this will greatly reduce the duration of workers in a space.
- Use administrative controls such as floor markings to indicate appropriate physical distancing between tasks or personnel and/or to indicate directional traffic flow. These markings help personnel and visitors better visualize spacing that will minimize droplet transmission.
- Utilize scheduling to minimize time spent together in the lab, as well as overall time onsite. Shared spaces should utilize a scheduling component to ensure no overlapping and allowance of adequate physical distancing. Please see the 'Laboratory Scheduling Precautions' section below.
- Laboratory staff will be responsible for cleaning high touch surfaces and shared equipment within the laboratory, and it is recommended that each laboratory establish a schedule with written procedures and clearly defined responsibilities. Laboratory staff may contact DOHS to assist with this assessment. Please see the 'Laboratory Cleaning and Disinfection Precautions' section below.
- A review of required PPE to conduct research should be performed to assess the operational and hazard requirements before changes are implemented or new items introduced. Do not forget that there are other serious hazards encountered every day in laboratories. Follow established SOPs and safety guidance to ensure you meet additional requirements regarding safe laboratory practices. If COVID-19 guidance and SOPs conflict, you should discuss it with your supervisor or consult with your
IC-assigned DOHS Safety Specialist. Please see the 'Personal Protective Equipment Precautions' section below
- If support personnel (e.g., ORF, CIT, OIIT, etc.) need to visit your work location, ensure physical distancing is met. Step out of your workspace if necessary while they complete their task. Limit in-person contact as much as possible, and masks must always be worn. Most IT functions can be done using a feature where the IT specialist can remotely work on your computer from their office or home location. These features should be used to the fullest extent possible to avoid in person work.
The ORS Medical Arts Branch has created visual graphics to assist with these recommendations. Please visit their
website to order posters, flyers, stickers, etc., for your location. The site includes free downloads, which can be printed from any printer, as well as instructions for ordering larger specialty signage, posters, and templates.
Laboratory Scheduling Precautions
Laboratory staff shall maintain physical distancing in the workplace whenever possible. This may involve scheduling work in shifts, maintaining cohorts of staff, or spacing work appropriately on the bench and in the bays. Laboratory managers and PIs should consider coordinating the use of shared laboratory spaces to ensure there is no inadvertent double-booking of space. A well-defined schedule or online calendar will help control access to and use of equipment. Consider moving shared equipment into a space where physical distancing is possible.
Laboratory workers should plan their experiments thoroughly, taking extra care to identify when they will do the work, what equipment they will need, and where they will work. A thoroughly planned experiment will allow staff to reduce time in the laboratory and reduce the likelihood of encountering other staff members. Use appropriate disinfection procedures and PPE to reduce possible exposure to SARS-CoV-2.
Laboratory Cleaning and Disinfection Precautions
Although it is now known that contact with contaminated surfaces is not a common route of infection proactive and thorough disinfection and cleaning of high touch surfaces can still reduce risk of exposure to SARS-CoV-2 and other pathogens. Laboratories should establish routines for disinfection of high contact surfaces. Supervisors should clearly identify the personnel responsible and procedures for disinfecting the laboratory space. These additional recommendations are not a replacement or substitute for general laboratory practices that are ongoing prior to this pandemic. Good work practices include cleaning of laboratory benches/ biological safety cabinets prior to and after completing work, timely cleanup of spills and preventing contamination of common surfaces by laboratory materials (e.g., not using dirty gloves on common surfaces). Gloves are worn for many tasks in the laboratory, and when they are removed, they should not be reused, and hands should be washed with soap and water immediately. It is important to be aware that some laboratory chemicals may not be compatible with disinfectants, so take care if using disinfectant cloths in wiping down reagent bottles.
Other cleaning and disinfection considerations include:
- Core facilities and shared spaces should implement clear expectations for shared equipment and require that personnel clean and disinfect equipment prior to start and after the completion of all work.
- Identify high-contact laboratory surfaces, equipment, and tools and disinfect before and after use. When equipment must be shared, implement cleaning and disinfection protocols for all laboratory users. Many of the common NIH disinfectants will be acceptable, and laboratory staff should consider the pros and cons when determining the best agent. Concerns include whether the disinfectant could corrode items, leave sticky film, etc. DOHS is available to answer questions as needed.
- Scientific equipment may require specialized disinfecting procedures to avoid damaging the equipment. Review manufacturer guidance prior to disinfecting.
- Consider using disposable benchtop coverings (e.g., Chux pads, diapers, etc.) and properly disposing after use. Disposable plastic covers may be considered for keyboards
- Follow the
NIH Exposure Control Plan for further guidance.
Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) Precautions
Laboratory staff must not become complacent when selecting PPE for their work. Facial coverings used when performing research should not be worn out of the laboratory. Facial coverings used outside of the laboratory should not also be used in the laboratory. Depending on your laboratory environment, this may require you to change to a more appropriate facial covering before conducting research. Appendix V of this document outlines specific recommendations for face coverings and other items, especially if work requires closer proximity than 6 feet. For additional questions or guidance, please contact your Safety Specialist.
While performing laboratory work, wear appropriate PPE according to your laboratory protocols. Remember:
- Avoid touching your face while wearing gloves.
- Do not wear gloves used for laboratory work outside of the laboratory.
- Dispose of all used laboratory PPE in Medical Pathological Waste (MPW) containers.
- Do not wear laboratory PPE outside of laboratory areas.
- Disposable facial coverings that are worn in the laboratory should be disposed of as Medical Pathological Waste (MPW). As an alternative, laboratory staff may choose to dispose of facial coverings in the general trash.