Designed for Safety
Designed for Safety

The laboratory manager was in a hospital that was designing a new stand-alone emergency department building which would include a rapid response laboratory. For some reason, he was not asked to be a part of the initial design team. After a few months, he asked to be able to join the meetings. Construction had begun and he was simply unaware that some major decisions about the lab had been made. On his first walk-through of the new space he noted a few issues. There was no floor drain for the chemistry instrument, and there was no emergency power available throughout the department. He also noticed there were no emergency eyewash stations available. The manager had to create an action plan and present it to the hospital administration. The changes to the almost-complete laboratory would cost thousands of dollars.

Parts of this story are true, and as that lab manager I can tell you it was not a highlight of my career. One important lesson is, of course, to make sure that if any construction project involves the laboratory, lab leadership and lab safety should be participating in any meetings from the beginning. It is a fascinating opportunity to design a new lab space, but attention to safety (and other details) must be given in order to avoid costly re-work.

If possible, always engage an architect who has experience designing laboratories. Make sure there is someone on the design team who is aware of lab safety standards and guidelines. Often there is a struggle to obtain space (square footage) and an impetus on saving budget dollars. It will be an important skill to know how to use those regulations to ensure the lab gets what is needed.

There are many safety considerations when designing or re-constructing lab spaces. First, consider the designated biosafety level (BSL) of the space. A BSL 3 lab will have many features that aren’t required for a standard BSL2 area. An ante room, a hands-free hand washing sink, and room ventilation ducted directly to outside air.

Safety equipment must be considered as well. Contact your local fire authority to see what type of fire suppression is required. If fire extinguishers will be in the space, find out how many will be necessary. Emergency eyewash stations should be installed within 55 feet (or ten seconds’ travel distance) of wherever hazardous chemicals will be used or handled. They may be installed at “dirty” sinks as well. Is a safety shower needed? If so, does a floor drain need to be planned or will other containment be used? Door swing must now become a consideration with this equipment. Doors must open in the direction toward an eyewash station or shower. A door that opens in the opposite direction would be considered a hindrance by regulatory agencies.

Consider laboratory noise when designing a new space. Lab instrumentation can generate much sound, and any design features that absorb or reduce noise will be beneficial. Safety signage is also critical. Remember to plan for signs that define the locations of eyewash stations, fire-fighting equipment, and evacuation routes. Discuss security issues as well such as lab access and safety after hours. Also bear in mind environmental and ventilation issues. If a chemical fume hood or biological safety cabinet will be used, make sure there is adequate space and any necessary duct work connections.

When designing a new lab space, having a handle on the needs and communicating them are key. Be sure the laboratory is not an afterthought in an overall project. Sometimes fixing an issue when construction has begun can be very difficult, and it is always expensive. Work with lab design experts and study available resources so that the lab space you end up with is appealing, functional, and most importantly, safe.

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