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  • Time to Brush Up: 9 Basic Rules for Safe Handling of Biohazards
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Time to Brush Up: 9 Basic Rules for Safe Handling of Biohazards

When was the last time you stopped to think about safe handling of biohazardous substances in your lab? Perhaps when a campus-wide memo about new incineration procedures came out? Maybe the last time you hired an animal technician? If this is the case, you’re probably due for a tune-up on safe-handling basics.

Potential biohazards can be anywhere

Biohazards common in animal labs include discarded cultures, stocks, vaccines and associated items likely to contain pathogenic organisms. These can include liquid animal waste such as blood, blood products and body fluids; wastes from the production of biologicals and antibiotics likely contaminated by pathogenic organisms; and infectious microorganisms such as bacteria, chlamydia, fungi, parasites, prions, rickettsias and viruses. Transgenic animals themselves may qualify. And don’t forget sharps that may have been contaminated with pathogenic organisms.

Those materials can become dangers to you and other lab workers through injecting animals, changing cages, changing bedding and cleaning up spills, among other avenues. Here are nine basic reminders for handling them safely:

    1. Have as few hands involved as possible and as few steps as possible, recommends Mark Suckow, DVM, Dipl. ACLAM, Director of the Freimann Life Sciences Center and Associate Research Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at the University of Notre Dame.

      “Each extra set of hands, each extra step, inherently adds additional chance for an accident,” he explains. “I have seen this firsthand, where someone from the PI’s lab insisted on helping, introduced an extra step between transfer of the infectious agent from the test tube to the animal and ended up inoculating himself.”

    2. Keep animals in standard housing until they need to go on study whenever you can, suggests Laura Gallaugher, DVM, Dipl. ACLAM, Clinical Laboratory Animal Veterinarian at Ohio State University. “That will save you a significant amount of money because [specialized] housing typically costs a great deal more in per diems,” she says. “Once animals need to go on study — when they’re exposed to the specific biohazard — they can be transferred to the appropriate [specialized] housing.” That primarily affects rodents, she notes, but it can apply to other species as well.

    3. Don appropriate attire, says Patricia N. Coan, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACLAM, Director of the Office of Laboratory Animal Care at the University of Tennessee. That means no shorts or open-toed shoes — and it means always wearing your laboratory coat. Protective lab clothing may seem a bother or unnecessary to some — until there’s a spill or other incident.

      Follow the rules

    4. Don’t eat or drink in a regulated lab where there are rules against that, adds Dr. Coan. Even if it seems inconvenient, remember that such rules are there for a reason: the food can be a contaminant, affect study data, or become contaminated and harm you.

    5. Don’t forget biosafety cabinet safety procedures, Dr. Coan cautions. That means remembering to decontaminate the cabinet before and after use and to decontaminate the supplies going into and coming out of it. Too many PIs also tend to forget that they shouldn’t cover vents or obstruct air flow in the biosafety cabinet, she says.

Set the example

    1. The boss must model good behavior, says Larry Carbone, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACLAM, Senior Veterinarian and Associate Director of the Lab Animal Resource Center at the University of California at San Francisco. “Biosafety rules and committees operate on a precautionary principle that can seem like overkill to an experienced PI who has worked in the environment for years without mishap. But if you scorn them and cut corners, you can be sure staff, including staff who may not understand the issues with your depth, will cut their own corners too.”

    2. Practice safe biohazards management even when you’re in a non-biohazardous circumstance, urges Diane McClure, DVM, PhD, Dipl. ACLAM, Associate Professor of Laboratory Medicine in the College of Veterinary Medicine at Western University of Health Sciences.

      “If you have unsafe habits in non-biohazardous settings, you are likely to unconsciously do the same [in a biohazardous setting],” she says.

Example:  "If you have a habit of chewing on your pen or pencil while writing, you might unknowingly continue that habit while writing down data under a biosafety hood or in a biosafety-regulated lab situation, too,” McClure says. “Break that habit in and out of the biohazardous environment. Chewing on the pen through a face mask does not make it safe. Yes, I really have seen this. I have actually ‘caught’ someone who was chewing through the face mask.”

Finally, here are two very simple but essential biohazard safety rules that PIs too often overlook, according to all of the above campus veterinarians:

  1. Do not recap needles.

  2. Wash your hands.
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