Published July 20, 2016 on labdesignnews.com
In this month’s column for Lab Design News, we explore lab safety and how to design for it.
The laboratory environment can be a dangerous place to work. Researchers come in contact with many types of hazards including chemicals, biological agents, radioactive materials and the associated health concerns with them. The designer’s goal is to maximize space, energy efficiency and comfort without sacrificing safety.
Laboratory safety is governed by numerous local, state and federal regulations. Large pharma and biotech firms understand the need for a safe research environment and have developed rigorous health and safety protocols. The design team must incorporate all safety and health standards and procedures early in the design phase. To assure that lab spaces maximize safety, designers need to fully understand how each lab space will function.
Key considerations include:
– What is the work sequence lab technicians follow?
– How will equipment be used and maintained?
– What protocols will be used to keep scientific samples and supplies uncontaminated?
– How will contaminated waste be handled and disposed?
As designers, we become very involved with the primary investigator, working to understand the research for the type of labs we develop. We consider many layout iterations, looking for the most flexible and efficient layouts. We scrutinize the spacing of benches, the locations for most of the equipment and the selection of durable surface materials. We become familiar with new program requirements and equipment tolerances used in cutting-edge research.
And then it happens: move-in day. The shelves are filled with vials, chemical bottles and cardboard boxes. Waste bins and file cabinets appear everywhere. Hazards such as broken glass, chemical spills and fires are very real concerns to lab occupants. Providing knowledgeable design services to our sophisticated research clients includes understanding how facilities function safely on a day-to-day basis.
In addition to understanding how the space will be used, we must consider flexibility. It is inevitable that the use of space or the layout will evolve over time. Because the focus of pharma/biotech continuously evolves, labs must be designed so that physical change can be accomplished efficiently and safely. What is a chemical-based lab today could, in the future, be transformed into one that is bio-based. While designers may understand a lab’s program, we can only guess at how it will evolve over 5 or 10 years. When designing the most flexible and efficient lab many of its components vie for top consideration but safety and comfort must be front and center.
Ventilation: Ventilation needs should be carefully scrutinized and not be minimized to a level that is not recommended for the planned research. If lab use or the research focus changes, there must be adequate ventilation to accommodate the number of vented enclosures and drop down ducting. A lab designed with low-flow or ‘high efficiency’ hoods may not accommodate the switch to more hazardous materials – or the realization that the materials are more hazardous than originally anticipated.
Hoods should be designed to operate on two separate fans. For example, when one fan is on, it is in energy-saving mode. When both fans are in use, it is in full hood operation. Even with one fan in use, the primary lab exhaust through the hood can be maintained. Fume hoods should not be placed along the main walking path through labs because it can lead to turbulence at the face of the hood, where most hazardous materials/operations occur.
Gases: In a typical lab, numerous pieces of equipment require specialty gases, and the common solution is to locate the cylinders directly adjacent to the equipment. However, this often means that cylinders are located in aisles, potentially blocking the path to the exit. Additionally, fire departments oppose compressed gas cylinders inside labs because they are hard to control if compromised by fire or, more importantly, compromise researcher safety if the regulators break-off. Where possible, pipe gas in from outside the lab, using a ventilated manifold system in a ventilated area.
Waste Flow and Chemical Storage: Planning for waste storage and disposal may not be the most glamorous part of a designer’s job but it is important. Space must be set aside for bins and containers for the waste that scientific research generates. Waste containers, recycling bins and sharp boxes are numerous and can quickly clutter up laboratory space, most noticeably if space for them has not been considered. At worst, containers are left in corridors and walking paths.
In some cases, special environments are required. Certain types of waste must be segregated. Hazardous chemical waste should be stored in shallow cabinets – so that all labels are visible (no deeper than 2 rows of 4 liter bottles). City or state environmental regulatory agencies may cite companies if hazardous waste labels are not immediately visible when opening the cabinet. If central storage is planned, consider its size, location and ability to expand, contain and segregate various chemicals.
To maximize flexibility, include multi-use cabinets (e.g., lined for future use as an acid or base storage). Flammable storage cabinets can be used for other materials but not vice-versa. If in doubt, it is safer to over-estimate. Use magnetic labels on storage cabinets, which can be changed over time to accurately reflect contents.
Chemical and flammable storage rooms may require spark and flame resistant materials. Do not locate storage areas near windows. If designing a barrier or pit to contain spills, consider both day-to-day work and an emergency event. Permanent door barriers or raised thresholds can contain spills, but can also create a tripping hazard potential and make it difficult to wheel carts over. Additionally, a floor pit can contain spills but consider that they are difficult to clean even with non-emergency use.
Safe Monitoring: Safe lab design may mean increasing (or decreasing) visual and physical access to spaces. It is advisable to provide visibility to chemical storage from a safe area – to enable monitoring in case of emergency. For ventilation, design controls for hood and general ventilation immediately outside labs. Ideally a scientist can quickly determine if ventilation is operating properly before entering the lab. Colored light displays can inform scientists if the ventilation is operational, and whether it is safe to enter. In research when gases are piped into the lab, locate a shut-off/kill switch outside lab to shut it down during an emergency.
Preventing food and personal item contamination: Scientists spend long hours in the lab, and they make phone calls, eat, drink and sometimes sleep. Lab environments do not allow most of these basic activities, especially food consumption, for the safety of the scientists and their experiments. While offices are usually separate from labs, often write-up areas still occur within the lab space to be near experimentation.
When space is at a premium, support spaces and prep rooms may end up becoming write-up areas over time, which means food may be present. This could lead to compromised research data or staff exposure to unknown contaminates. A design solution is to locate the write-up areas just outside the lab space, with adequate visual connection to the experimental work. If write-up areas cannot be separated, consider providing a nearby lounge or alcove to encourage relaxation outside of the lab space.
Besides bringing food into the lab, it is also important to consider other personal items. For example, mobile phones and laptops come in and out of the lab daily and workers often bring them home. In a lab with higher containment requirements, a method of decontaminating these items may be necessary. Pass-thru windows can be used to help facilitate the passage of items to a containment lab.
Security: Security can be an issue in an open lab. Sometimes labs require additional security, due to hazardous materials (such as bioactive or radioactive substances). Designing a flexible open lab may mean creating modules that can be walled off and self-contained. For example, an isolated module will need its own emergency stations.
Maximizing Efficiency without Compromise: At the end of the day, space equals money and owners are looking for labs that are as efficient as possible. Include an institution’s environmental health and safety personnel in design conversations as early as possible to ensure that storage, waste collection and life safety equipment is handled in an efficiently and not compromised. Inadequately designed spaces can create unsafe/dangerous work conditions.
As designers, our job is to create spaces for our clients that meet many levels of criteria. These spaces must be functional, aesthetically pleasing, flexible, durable, on-budget and on-schedule, as well as safe. Safety is design criteria that cannot be sacrificed or forgotten in the interest of other factors. It is up to the designer to understand safety issues and assist the client with decisions that will maintain acceptable levels of safety, for both current and potential future occupancies. It is worthwhile to spend time observing and understanding lab work flow, rigorously reviewing protocols and regulations, probing expectations and assessing how spaces may evolve. This will result in better spaces that work well for clients and keep their scientists safe.