Many laboratories work with substances that can be harmful if handled incorrectly, none more so than labs dealing with biological agents. Biological agents are graded in levels of how dangerous they are; from biological agents that have been cultured in the lab to animal pathogens – biosafety regulations apply to a wide area of lab research.

This comprehensive guide to biosafety in the lab has all the information needed to protect personnel and the environment.

Biosafety Levels

Biosafety levels are designed to identify the safety measures that should be in place to prevent contamination. The four biosafety levels are designed to protect against specific biological agents, including bacteria, fungi, parasites, prions, rickettsia agents, and viruses.

The most important safety measures are for the containment of viruses, which can spread quickly and cause serious damage. The level of risk posed by a biological agent is determined using three criteria:

  • The availability of medical countermeasure or prophylactic treatment.
  • It’s potential to spread.

Level 1

The lowest level of biosafety applies to agents that pose minimal threat and do not consistently cause illness in healthy adults.

Research in these labs does not usually require speciality containment equipment and the labs themselves do not have to be isolated from the general building.

Standard microbiology practices are usually sufficient to achieve successful containment. These include the use of mechanical pipetting, safe sharps handling, careful handling of substances, and thorough housekeeping. Decontamination of work surfaces, spills, and materials are all important. Standard personal protective equipment such as lab coats, gloves, and eye protection are sufficient.

Level 2

The second biosafety level covers agents associated with human disease. This includes pathogens or infectious organisms that pose a hazard to human health, such as equine encephalitis and HIV. Often, level two labs have a bigger focus on careful handling to avoid any injury that pierces the skin, as well as avoiding ingestion or mucus membrane exposure to contaminants.

An eyebath station should also be available. Cautious handling of sharps and puncture-resistant sharps containers are also mandatory. Labs with level two ratings should have a biosafety manual detailing required immunisation and whether serum banking is required to protect staff. A Class II Biosafety Cabinet should be used for effective containment.

Level 3

Biosafety level three applies to labs working with agents that are strictly controlled and must be registered with the appropriate government agencies. Agents requiring level three biosafety are serious or lethal diseases that can be passed on through simple inhalation of particles or droplets. In addition to the safety procedures applicable at level two, more stringent access control and decontamination of waste processes apply. For example, lab clothing must be decontaminated prior to laundering within the lab facility.

Baseline serum samples should also be collected from all at-risk personnel. Solid-front wraparound gowns, scrub suits or overalls, and respirators are necessary. Access should be separate from general building corridors and incorporate self-closing double doors. Ventilation should provide ducted, directional airflow from a clean area, with no recirculation.

Level 4

Agents that pose a high risk of deadly disease require level four biosafety, to provide maximum protection and containment. In addition to the safety precautions required at biosafety level three, level four requires complete clothing change before entry to the lab, a shower on exit, and decontamination of all materials before leaving the facility. The laboratory should be completely isolated from the main building and include dedicated supply and exhaust ventilation, with exhaust streams being filtered through high-efficiency particulate air filters.

Emergency Procedure 

In the case of a biosafety emergency, all the responsible bodies should be informed, including the appropriate government departments. Under RIDDOR (Reporting of Injuries, Diseases and Dangerous Occurrences Regulations) any incidents, accidents or infections involving biological agents at work must be reported.

Depending on the incident, these will either be referred to the Health and Safety Executive or the Health Protection Agency. Procedure for reporting incidents is quick and simple, with a form that can be completed and submitted online. This should be performed by the laboratory owner or manager.

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