Although most laboratory personnel are prepared to handle incidental spills or minor chemical exposures, many other types of emergencies can affect a laboratory, ranging from power outages to floods or intentional malicious acts. Some may have long-term consequences and may severely affect the continuity of laboratory operations. Although these issues must be considered on an organizational level, laboratory personnel should be trained in how to respond to large-scale emergencies. Laboratory security can play a role in reducing the likelihood of some emergencies and assisting in preparation and response for others. (For more information about laboratory security, see Chapter 10.)
There are four major phases to managing an emergency: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery.
The mitigation phase includes efforts to minimize the likelihood that an incident will occur and to limit the effects of an incident that does occur. Mitigation efforts may be procedural, such as safe storage of materials, or physical, such as a sprinkler system.
The preparedness phase is the process of developing plans for managing an emergency and taking action to ensure that the laboratory is ready to handle an emergency. This phase might include ensuring that adequate supplies are available, training personnel, and preparing a communication plan.
The response phase involves efforts to manage the emergency as it occurs and may include outside responders as well as laboratory staff. The response is more effective and efficient when those involved in it understand their roles, have the training to perform their duties, and have the supplies they need on hand.
The recovery phase encompasses the actions taken to restore the laboratory and affected areas to a point where the functions of the laboratory can be carried out safely. Usually, these actions restore the laboratory to its previous condition; however, this stage provides an opportunity for improvement.
The four phases are interconnected. Effective mitigation efforts reduce the impact of the emergency and ease the response and recovery stages. Lessons learned during an emergency may lead to further mitigation and preparedness efforts during the recovery phase. Good planning in the preparedness stage makes the response and recovery less complicated. However, a plan is not a substitute for thinking. It offers guidance and helps prepare for emergencies. It is not intended to replace analyzing the situation and formulating the best response based on the resources and situation at hand.
Every institution, department, and individual laboratory should have an emergency preparedness plan. The level of detail of the plan will vary depending on the function of the group and institutional planning efforts already in place.
Planning proceeds in several steps. First, determine what types of incidents are most likely to occur to determine the type and magnitude of planning required. This will require input from multiple levels of the organization, and discussions with laboratory personnel should be integral to the process. Next, decide who the decision makers and stakeholders are and how to handle communications. Then, do the actual plan for the types of emergencies identified in the first step. Finally, train staff in the procedures outlined in the plan.
Emergency planning is a dynamic process. As personnel, operations, and events change, plans need updating and modification.
It is not possible to account for every emergency. When handling an emergency, do not use the plan as a recipe; use it as a list of ingredients and guidance.
3.B.1 Vulnerability Assessment
To determine the type and level of emergency planning needed, laboratory personnel need to perform a vulnerability assessment. What kinds of emergencies are most likely? What is the possible effect on laboratory operations?
For every potential emergency, the group should consider the history of occurrence in their laboratory or institution and at institutions with similar circumstances. The group should evaluate how the emergency would affect the laboratory, for example, damage to critical equipment, staffing limitations, loss of data, and the severity of the resulting conditions on laboratory operations. Making a list of available emergency response equipment and the location of that equipment assists in this task.
When planning, especially when determining where to spend time and resources, use impact/occurrence mapping (Figure 3.1). Where time and/or resources are limited, focus attention on events that would have higher impact and higher likelihood, and less attention on issues that are unlikely to occur or would have little impact.
The types of incidents and emergencies to consider vary depending on the type of laboratory, geographical location, and other factors that are unique to an institution or laboratory. The following sections cover most common issues faced in laboratories.