Contingency Planning in the Lab: Is Your Lab Prepared?

laboratory disaster response planning

laboratory disaster response planning

Natural disasters, equipment failures, unexpected staffing shortages, and cyber-attacks can have devastating consequences.  Especially if your lab doesn’t have a disaster preparedness and emergency checklist or backup plan in place to recover from such damage.  Precious research samples or computer equipment can be lost without any way to recover them.  Not to mention the painstaking task of starting over…. whether that means setting up an entire new lab, replacing damaged equipment and the IQ/OQ/PQs that go along with that, or acquiring other resources.  The good news is that there are ways to better prepare yourself ahead of time by implementing a disaster preparedness plan, and by ensuring the proper education, training and awareness is communicated to staff and key stakeholders.

In this article, we will explore a few backup strategies for your consideration.  I also thought it would be helpful to get another perspective and invited Clifford J. Whatcott, a colleague of mine to share his experiences with backup planning in the laboratory.

The ideas listed below will incorporate both planning ahead and recovering from unexpected issues in the lab.  Let’s get planning!

1. Space Planning

Contingency planning can occur early in the process of laboratory design. Ensuring items like generators, gas tank placement, and research animal housing are not only secured, but are not in areas that could be prone to flooding, like basements. As you plan for these items, think about how quickly you can access them, maintain them, etc. if a disaster arises.  Another laboratory layout thought includes installing the appropriate fire suppression system.  Excess water damage could make matters worse and cause damage on top of the fire.  If there are expensive laboratory instruments and computer equipment, consider waterless fire suppression systems.

2. Safety Equipment

In addition to fire suppression systems as I discussed above, it is critical to have general safety equipment available AND up to code.  Fire extinguishers, first aid kits, electrical safety tools, and up-to-date training can help all lab staff be more aware and equipped to respond to emergencies, if they arise.  Having the appropriate storage cabinets for flammables and other hazardous chemicals is another consideration that can prevent additional damage.  It isn’t enough just to make sure these items are available, it’s also important to make sure they are regularly inspected and maintained.  While it’s not necessarily classified as safety equipment, having appropriate measures in place to protect computer systems is critical.  The loss of valuable research data could be catastrophic and make a recovery difficult.  Appropriate and up-to-date information systems protection software and maintenance is important when it comes to protecting precious digital data.  Some organizations even maintain their server backups at a secure offsite location as an emergency preparedness step.

3. Backup Equipment (Redundant)

When it comes to having backup laboratory equipment, I consulted Clifford for his insight.  “In terms of equipment failure contingencies, our first approach is generally redundancy.  We purchase multiple pieces of certain equipment (e.g. cell culture incubators). Where space or finances are limiting, we purchase equipment that has some backup capabilities built in.  For example, we have installed an ultralow freezer in the lab.  We purchased one with a liquid CO2 backup, which would engage in case of a compressor failure.  We have also installed independent temperature monitors to notify us in case the temperature falls out of range. Fortunately, we have not yet had a failure of our ultralow freezer.  I believe these measures will come in handy should we have a failure in the future.”  Having redundant equipment can be a great approach, but it can also be costly.  You could also think of manual backup solutions.  For example, having more backup pipettes on hand versus another liquid handling robot.

4. Business continuity plan

Having a plan to put into action can help organize recovery efforts and strategies for resuming research or production. It may also be a requirement for your accreditation body. Up-to-date emergency personnel, backup vendor, and reagent inventory lists are a great start to a continuity plan. Having backups for outsourcing lab work, or a strategy for resuming work is also a good addition to your plan. Also, having pictures of all laboratory equipment and the associated purchase information (vendor, dates, cost, etc.) on file could come in handy with insurance claims.

5. Involving staff

Being involved in contingency discussions will lead to stronger execution and support of backup procedures and more confidence from the staff when the unexpected occurs.  How can you involve staff?

One way to help support operations after a disaster is to have staff members that have been pro-actively cross trained in multiple areas.  This will help ensure there is coverage in case personnel are unable to return to work or there are limited work areas that can be safely accessed.  A cross training record may be a valuable addition to a continuity plan and can provide a way to involve staff in the planning.

Will management buy-in?

We’ve reviewed a few ideas for laboratory backup planning, with some ranging from very inexpensive to others having some costs associated with them.  Because of these potential costs, I was curious to know whether or not management typically has buy-in when it comes to contingency planning.  I asked Clifford for his thoughts: “Yes I’d say there is generally buy-in from management.  Sometimes our personal risk aversion is informed by prior personal experience. And so, there is always an attempt to balance the risk vs. cost.”

Once your lab has a continuity plan in place, the work to prepare does not stop.  While it’s tempting to file plans away or tuck emergency supplies into a cabinet, it is important to check them over occasionally.  Again, I consulted Clifford on plan maintenance, and he said, “Regular review of backup/contingency plans currently in place, as well as regular review of key equipment and potential bottlenecks is key to avoid an unanticipated failure.”  Potential bottlenecks can include personnel changes (not keeping cross training plans current), or not properly maintaining equipment (safety or laboratory related.)  Because staff, technology, and space in the lab are constantly evolving; it’s essential that your backup plan be current and maintained.

While some backup planning strategies have little to no cost, some can have quite significant financial impacts.  But the risk vs. cost assessment may make them worthwhile.  Taking the time to assess your lab’s unique needs and creating and implementing a backup plan that takes into account a realistic cost benefit analysis is not only great for lab operations, it’s a great team-building exercise.


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About the Author

breeann bryanBreeann Bryan

Breeann Bryan is a dedicated laboratory professional with a LEAN Six Sigma Black Belt. Her background ranges from the bench to operational administration and project management. She is proud to share her knowledge and empower others to tackle their process improvement challenges, whether it’s troubleshooting data quality issues, finding out how to maximize efficiency in the lab, or keeping teams on task. She firmly believes that everyone deserves to have the right tools needed for the job.