Living in Virginia, hurricane season usually has me thinking about lab disaster plans and the risk of a real natural disaster. In the Mid-Atlantic region of the United States, the highest hurricane risk occurs between September and November. So far this year, a few storms have pointed in this direction, but luckily, they have all turned away. That luck won’t hold forever, the risk still exists.
OSHA’s Bloodborne and Airborne pathogens standards require assessing the risk of employees’ exposure to particular lab hazards. Risk assessments can be used to determine whether or not to add an emergency eyewash station, and all lab chemicals need to be assessed for the hazards they pose. These are just some assessments that exist in the laboratory world, and there are particular steps to take when performing them. But what about the lab emergency management plan? Should the lab perform a risk assessment for that? The answer is yes, although the terminology used may be different. To prepare a disaster readiness plan for the lab, the risk assessment that is needed is known as a Hazard Vulnerability Analysis (HVA).
The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) requires that all healthcare facilities use an “all-hazards” approach when considering emergency preparedness and planning. While some laboratories may be included with the facility-wide disaster plan, if it’s larger, the lab should absolutely have its own plan with specific instructions that apply directly to the department. That means the lab should also consider an all-hazards approach.
It may seem daunting to try to consider every possible disaster that could occur in the department, but that is not exactly what the directive from CMS dictates. An all-hazards approach means that emergency plans should be scalable or flexible so that it can be used for many types of disasters. The plan should focus on the lab’s ability to continue to offer services, especially those deemed critical, as a disaster situation unfolds.
The first step to the plan creation is the risk assessment- the Hazard Vulnerability Analysis. The HVA can be a table that lists all of the potential types of disaster; natural, man-made, facility-specific, etc. List as many as you can think of, and be sure to include specific disasters that may be particular to your locale (earthquakes, blizzards, etc.). Rate each disaster type by probability, severity of impact, and level of readiness of the lab to respond. Using that data, you can calculate the risk percentage for each emergency type.
One other requirement imposed by CMS is that facilities must include emerging infectious diseases as one potential type of hazard class. With the advent of particular diseases in the past years like Ebola, Zika, COVID-19, and certain influenza types, it is important to consider how an outbreak would affect lab operations and staffing. The risk level of infectious diseases may vary as incidents and outbreaks occur in particular geographic regions or if pandemics arise.
The HVA should be reviewed and updated as necessary each year. Things change that can affect what is on your HVA list. The addition of a nearby airport might make you consider adding airline disaster to the HVA. A change in weather patterns could occur as well. In 2011 a surprise earthquake in Virginia made state facilities re-look at their HVA list of possible emergency situations. Also, the actual list of disasters might not change, but there may be a change in the potential of a particular incident occurring.
If your lab or facility has not yet performed the HVA risk assessment, there is no need to panic. There are several model HVA tools available on line that can be used. As with any risk assessment, be sure to keep documentation readily available, review it each year, and make sure staff are trained about not only the HVA process, but in how to use the emergency management plan as well. There is a great amount of work that can go into preparing for a disaster, and training and drills for your staff will help to facilitate a smoother activation of the plan when the real emergency situation occurs.