The COVID-19 pandemic is peaking in the United States, and many things are being affected in unprecedented ways. Schools are closing, business travel is banned, gatherings are canceled, and stores are out of…toilet paper. There are supply shortages that are peaking as well, and some of the items that have become hard to get include personal protective equipment (PPE). Does that mean we can work without it in the laboratory setting? Absolutely not, neither OSHA nor any other regulatory agency will put a halt to safety practices that protect workers in any setting. But what if you really can’t get the PPE supplies you need? There are some alternatives.
One thing to remember is that PPE should be used wisely and efficiently, even when there is no pandemic issue present. Lab coats should be used for at least one week, whether they are disposable or reusable. There are laboratorians who prefer to change coats daily, and that is simply wasteful. Lab coat shortages may not become an issue where reusable coats are used and laundered, so if that’s your lab, you should be in good shape. If you use disposable coats, however, you might run into trouble with back orders because of the current high demand. There are certain brands of disposable lab coats which may be washed and/or autoclaved for re-use if needed. That’s not true of every brand, you MUST check with the manufacturer to make sure laundering or the use of an autoclave is safe for that particular coat. Get it in writing before you begin such a practice, and only use that practice while the shortage continues.
Latex or nitrile lab gloves should not be re-used or washed. No laboratory glove manufacturer recommends these practices. Donning used gloves will create an infection issue as you handle used gloves with bare hands in order to put them on a second time. Washing gloves will degrade the protective material, and chemicals and biohazardous material will seep easily through to your skin. Be efficient with the use of gloves but remember that they do have specific, manufacturer-designated breakthrough times, degradation times, and permeation rates. There are definitely limitations on how long they can maintain a safe barrier for your hands.
Face shields or goggles can and should be re-used in the lab. Most brands can be cleaned or disinfected without damage, and they can be used for long periods. Disposable face shields or goggles may also be able to be cleaned (check with the manufacturer), but even if that isn’t acceptable, they can be used at least until something is splashed on them.
The COVID-19 pandemic has created a nation-wide shortage of masks and N95 respirators. In response to this, the CDC has created a web page devoted to contingency plans for respirator shortages on its Coronavirus Disease 2019 web pages (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/respirators-strategy/contingency-capacity-strategies.html). There is guidance about re-using N95 respirators and using them beyond the manufacturer-designated shelf life. However, only the department responsible for the facility respiratory protection program (i.e. Employee Health) should be able to make the decision about extended wear practices. If necessary, there are some situations where the use of N95 masks can be extended beyond the manufacturer’s specifications. The guidance also specifically allows re-use of respirators as long as the respirator maintains its structural and functional integrity. Again, such practices might become necessary, but they cannot be implemented without a respiratory protection program administrator’s input.
Sometimes laboratorians need to think “outside the box” when it comes to lab safety and PPE, and there are some alternative practices that become acceptable when the needs arise. The bottom line is that staff always need to be protected, and the practice of not using PPE is never acceptable. Pandemics will come and go, but the need for safety and protection in the lab doesn’t change. Maintain a level head, and keep an eye on the safety and health of your staff no matter the situation.