Is it okay to work alone in the laboratory?
Working alone should be avoided. Working with hazardous materials and equipment always poses risks to researcher health and safety. However, these risks are heightened when working alone because help is not readily available in case of a mishap.
To reduce the risks of working alone:
- Do not perform tasks that are not appropriate for working alone.
- Reduce the amount(s) of hazardous materials used.
- Know the location of, and maintain clear access to, emergency equipment (e.g., safety shower, eye wash, fire extinguisher).
- Check alarm systems (e.g., oxygen sensors) frequently and immediately take action upon alarm activation.
- Implement a buddy system.
Which tasks are prohibited while working alone?
Some tasks are prohibited while working alone, including:
- Work with certain hazardous materials:
- Cryogens (e.g., liquid nitrogen, liquid helium)
- Pyrophoric and explosive materials
- Highly reactive materials (e.g., strong oxidizers, acids, bases)
- Hydrofluoric acid
- Transferring large quantities of hazardous materials (i.e., >5L)
- Procedures that may create hazardous conditions (e.g., oxygen deficiency), or adverse outcomes if not well-controlled (e.g., exothermic polymerization)
- Work around high voltage
- Machine shop activities
- Confined space entry
If you perform an essential lab function that requires one of these tasks, consult with your Principal Investigator or Laboratory Supervisor to implement appropriate controls, including a buddy system.
How can I implement a buddy system while working alone and/or social distancing?
A buddy system can reduce the risk of certain tasks by ensuring another person is capable of seeking help if another is injured or incapacitated in the course of their work. There are several methods to implement a buddy system, even while working alone or social distancing.
- In-person buddy: Higher-risk tasks, such as handling of cryogenic liquids (e.g., liquid nitrogen) should have another person within earshot, but >6 feet away.
- Semi-in-person buddy: If there are other researchers in your building conducting critical tasks, you may coordinate to serve as one another’s buddy. Check in to one another’s lab room regularly (e.g., every 15-30 minutes) while staying >6 feet away.
- Live remote buddy: By using video conferencing tools or a phone call, a researcher can have a buddy who is aware of their status live, but is not present in-person.
- Asynchronous remote buddy: Lower risk tasks, such as splitting non-hazardous cells, are amenable. In this system, the researcher tells their buddy where they are working, when to expect the researcher to check in, and what to do if the researcher does not check in at the appointed time.
- Prior to designating a remote (live or asynchronous) buddy, tell them where you are working (building and room number), when you are working, when you will check in, and what to do if you do not check in on time. If you do not check in, you may instruct your buddy to call you, call a roommate, or call an appropriate authority such as your PI.
How can I work safely if I have to work alone?
Follow these best practices for common critical tasks for essential lab functions:
Maintaining critical cell lines
- Conduct all work as written in local procedures, the SU Exposure Control Plan and Biosafety Manual, and protocols approved by the Administrative Panel on Biosafety.
- Wear safety eyewear and a lab coat, even if you normally do not, to reduce risk of an exposure from a splash or spill.
- Avoid the use of sharps where feasible.
Animal welfare work
- Conduct the minimum work to ensure animal welfare and avoid handling animals, as feasible, to reduce risk of bite or scratch.
How can I work safely with cryogens?
Many instruments and equipment require regular fills with cryogenic liquids (e.g., liquid nitrogen, liquid helium). Cryogenic liquids can rapidly expand as gases and displace the oxygen in the room, creating a hazardous atmosphere. To reduce risk:
- ALWAYS have a buddy available when working with cryogenic liquids.
- Wear appropriate streetwear and PPE, including insulated gloves in good condition.
What’s the best way to prepare for working alone?
Create a Safe Work Alone Plan:
- Conduct a Risk Assessment for critical tasks. Consider what can go wrong and how adverse impacts can be eliminated or reduced.
- Consult with the Principal Investigator/Laboratory Supervisor on which tasks are not appropriate for working alone and how the hazards can be controlled. Review the risk assessment together.
- Identify hazard controls such as:
- Eliminating the use of hazardous materials
- Minimizing the quantity of hazardous materials used
- Performing all work with an appropriate engineering control (e.g., chemical fume hood for chemical work, biosafety cabinet for work with biohazardous materials)
- Implementing a buddy system
- Wearing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). Always wear appropriate PPE (lab coat, safety eyewear, gloves) and streetwear (long pants that go to the shoe, or equivalent, and shoes that cover the entire foot) while in the laboratory. While working alone, select PPE more conservatively than you would in ordinary circumstances. For example, under ordinary circumstances relatively few tasks require a face shield, but when working alone you may decide to wear a face shield at any time there is splash potential.