Setting Up the Lab


Ensuring the safety of personnel is of paramount importance when setting up a lab. Irrespective of the type of work that will be carried out, it is critical that adequate measures are put in place to address any situation that could present a potential risk. This means considering the overall design of the lab space to avoid overcrowding and minimize footfall; configuring the layout of furniture and free-standing equipment such that the lab is uncluttered and easy to clean; selecting suitable safety equipment, including that used for handling and disposing of biohazardous material; and supplying the lab with everything necessary to contain and decontaminate any unexpected spills.

Here, we highlight some key factors to consider during lab setup and discuss ways of implementing these within your working environment. Also, with a growing number of labs being used to handle materials classed as biosafety level (BSL) 2 or higher, we offer some general guidelines for identifying a biosafety cabinet that meets your workflow needs.

Critical considerations for lab design

Several fundamental design features distinguish an assigned workspace from a lab that is truly fit-for-purpose. First, the walls, floors, and ceilings should be impermeable to the various liquids typically used in a lab setting and easy to clean. Likewise, benchtops should be resistant to chemical and disinfectant solutions, as well as being able to withstand moderate heat. Open areas beneath benches or free-standing equipment such as CO2 incubators or ultralow freezers should be readily accessible for cleaning (for example, through under-bench drawer units and free-standing equipment having wheels) handwashing station should always be provided, preferably near the exit door.

Other important considerations include having adequate storage space to prevent floors or benchtops from becoming cluttered, thereby increasing the risk of a spill; provision of suitable containment for hazardous reagents like solvents or radioactive materials; and ease of access to a visible first aid kit and eyewash station. Additionally, adequate lighting should be supplied to illuminate the workspace without causing unwanted reflection or glare. Any doors leading into or out of the lab should ideally have a small window to help avert any collisions. It can be prudent to connect crucial electrical equipment to a backup generator or surge suppressor to protect against power losses or voltage spikes in many settings.

It is also essential that personnel are provided with ample space to perform lab work safely. This involves positioning benches so that operatives are not required to squeeze past one another to get to shared resources such as fridges, ultralow temperature freezers, general purpose centrifuges, or co2 incubators, and siting those shared resources in such a way as to minimize foot traffic. For example, placing a benchtop centrifuge at the opening of a bay rather than toward the far end eliminates the need for personnel to maneuver past multiple co-workers each time they wish to centrifuge their sample material. Some labs even choose to incorporate a one-way system to control footfall, an approach that has become increasingly common in the current COVID-19 climate. The lab is intended for handling samples classified as BSL 2 or higher, one or more biosafety cabinets should be fitted, and an autoclave or other means of decontamination should be readily available. Lastly, these measures should be complemented by a comprehensive range of safety equipment common to any well-designed lab, including pipetting aids, sharps safes, chemical, and biological spill kits, fire extinguishers, fire blankets, safety showers, and personal protective equipment (PPE).

Selecting a suitable biosafety cabinet

Biosafety cabinets are designed to protect personnel, the environment, and product from contamination when operatives handle materials. To put this into context, BSL1 is the lowest biosafety level, requiring no specialized safety equipment; this is typically assigned to agents such as Bacillus subtilis or canine hepatitis that pose only very minimal risk and can be manipulated on the open lab bench. At the other end of the scale, BSL4 encompasses dangerous or exotic agents that are associated with an extremely high risk of a life-threatening disease or related agents where the risk of transmission is unknown; this is used to classify agents like Ebola virus or Marburg virus, where infections are frequently fatal and often have no known treatment.

Knowing the risk level of the agent that will be handled in the lab is essential when it comes to performing a risk assessment that will assist in selecting and installing primary engineering controls such as a biosafety cabinet. ABSA (The Association for Biosafety and Biosecurity) offers a free risk group database tool as a starting place to identify the risk level of the bacteria, fungus, parasite, or virus you are working with. Biosafety Cabinets range from class I through class III, with class III (better known as a glove box) providing the highest level of protection. A risk assessment will determine if the material can safely be handled in either a class I or class II biosafety cabinet; the main difference between these is that class II cabinets HEPA filter the air from the lab before it enters the enclosure, making them a preferred choice where the material is susceptible to airborne contamination (e.g., primary cell cultures or human whole blood samples that will be sorted and used for further downstream experimentation).

Class II biosafety cabinets are further subdivided into types A1, A2, B1, B2, and C1 that vary in terms of the amount of air recirculated within the cabinet and how the air is exhausted, choosing between the different types available largely depends on the risk assessment and the nature of the workflow. Risk level 4 agents most likely will be handled in a BSL4 laboratory. They will be handled in a class III biosafety cabinet or a class II biosafety cabinet in the appropriate clean room and bubble suit. The BSL4 lab comes with a significant amount of safety requirements, including a complete clothing change before personnel enters the lab, mandatory showers upon exit, and the need to decontaminate all material before leaving the facility.

A core team made up of the biosafety officer, principal investigator, lab manager, and more must perform a risk assessment to determine the risk level of the agent and the BSL needed to identify engineering controls needed to perform work safely.