Around the world, the impact of COVID-19 has been dramatic and abrupt. Likely, there isn’t an individual or institution who hasn’t felt its effects. Scientists and scientific organizations have had to be especially nimble in adapting in order to carry out pivotal roles in the global response.
As America’s first repository of microorganisms and other biomaterials, ATCC has a steeped history as one of the pillars of infectious disease research. Recognizing that many researchers are just now getting back to the lab, the organization is sharing what it has learned over the past several months about best practices for keeping workers safe.
At first news of this novel pathogen ― even before it had become a health issue in the US ― ATCC knew its role would be essential.
Changes in ATCC’s day-to-day operations came relatively early in the crisis. In the initial part of January, the organization was alerted to an outbreak in Wuhan, China. And in very early February, things took off.
ATCC anticipated and responded to increased demand for credible coronavirus reference materials by designing and developing three new quantitative synthetic SARS-CoV-2 RNA constructs for use as controls in the development and running of molecular-based detection assays. From there, ATCC’s role expanded through the receipt of genomic RNA and a heat-inactivated preparation of the SARS-CoV-2 virus through one of its government-supported contracts, BEI Resources, a NIAID-funded biorepository for infectious diseases. ATCC quickly began to distribute these critical reagents to the research community for work focused on understanding the virus and supporting efforts to develop novel diagnostics, vaccines, and therapeutics. ATCC’s continued efforts have been to provide authenticated materials for basic research, support the supply chain for the development and distribution of diagnostic tests, and other numerous essential functions in an effort to help save lives during the COVID-19 pandemic.
While ATCC colleagues worked around the clock to assist with global efforts, it also was critically important for the organization to keep its own staff safe. Modifying its own labs and affiliated work environments, as well as adapting protocols, became essential.
Now that many labs are running again, ATCC is sharing details of its experiences in hopes of keeping workers safe.
"In science, we build on each other’s knowledge," said Raymond D. Stapleton, Jr., PhD, president and chief operating officer at ATCC. "Now, as many researchers get back to their labs ― working under new and uncustomary conditions ― it’s especially important that we share experiences about what works and what doesn’t in keeping our teams safe and feeling secure. As the pandemic continues to evolve, along with the demands on the scientific community, we’ll need to look to one another to efficiently identify those best practices that both minimize the risk of SARS-CoV-2 transmission and allow optimal productivity so our essential, lifesaving work can continue."
ATCC offers these takeaways to help others just starting the process:
Evaluate and update the workspace: Being able to maintain a strong sense of team while implementing necessary social distancing rests largely on how well and creatively organizations can manage their physical workspace.
An initial evaluation of the organization’s space might include the number and density of staff, their current positioning in each workspace, workflow, and, importantly, looking at the HVAC system to maximize ventilation. Tape placed on the floor can serve as spacing marks. Moving chairs and furniture in common areas will create and encourage physical distancing. Propping open all doors, where lab safety and privacy allow, can help minimize high-touch areas. Setting a laundering schedule for lab coats can help with hygiene. And establishing schedules or having employees sign up to use critical, shared resources can help with time management while ensuring that colleagues are able to maintain appropriate physical distancing.
Acknowledge and respect the mental and emotional toll: This pandemic has hit people hard ― in many different ways and with varying reactions and levels of concern. Be careful not to underestimate the toll it already has taken and realize that continued distancing will likely be further isolating as workloads remain heavy.
Identifying alternative ways for employees to feel connected — using photos and other creative forms of individual and team recognition — can help ease the mental burden. Something as simple as treating the lab to a takeout lunch can be uplifting and a shared moment of reconnection. And oftentimes, a simple-but-heartfelt “thank you” can make all the difference.
Understanding people’s fears and concerns is especially important. And finding out what workers are worried about and what would make them feel more comfortable will help manage stress. Recognize the importance of both personal safety and peace of mind, and strive to strike a healthy balance by addressing both.
Build in flexibility: Taking care of employees during this pandemic means being more flexible than ever. Staggering schedules as much as possible; keeping work that must be done in the lab ― such as the physical manipulation of materials ― in the lab, but moving colleagues to other, physically distanced, work spaces or to work remotely from home for data analysis and documentation; and providing at-home ergonomics support: each of these efforts, among others, can help address the safety and well-being of staff. For colleagues with preexisting conditions who are at high risk of experiencing a severe reaction to COVID-19, consider offering to switch their roles for a period of time to minimize any potential exposure.
All in all, organizations will need to be on their toes ― to be creative and inventive on the spot ― in order to tackle this continually evolving pandemic.
Change processes and procedures: Putting routine procedures in place can provide a valuable safety net for minimizing exposure to the virus. Institute temperature checks. Create a system and schedule for additional facility cleanings and for providing staff with cleaning supplies. Implement a system of “clean in, clean out” for each time an employee enters and leaves a work area. Update sick leave policies so they’re appropriate and reflect the current needs of staff ― who will need to exercise additional caution in case of possible infection.Be sure to address continued comradery. And creatively devise new ways to maintain the same level of idea sharing and collaboration that has always been a valued part of the organization’s culture.
And remember: Safety isn’t about any one person. It’s a team sport. And colleagues need to understand what the organization is trying to do and why it’s doing it a certain way if they’re going to actively participate.
Create a system or process for listening to feedback: Maintaining an ongoing, constructive dialogue with staff will be especially important as this pandemic continues to unfurl. Opening up multiple avenues and means by which people can express their reactions, ideas, and concerns will be beneficial. And communicating clearly, repeatedly, and especially with extra patience, empathy, and understanding will be all-important as people strive to balance their lives, work, and composure under these new and challenging conditions.
Designating room champions to mediate the flow of information from down to up and up to down is an effective way of ensuring that there's no disconnect between executive management and staff. Creating an environment where people feel safe in expressing themselves, their ideas, and how they’re feeling should be an explicit goal.
Undoubtedly, reliable and consistent communications across a wide range of topics and channels —designed to educate, advise, and nurture employees — will serve as a stabilizing force as the global response to this ongoing pandemic continues to shift. For ATCC, carefully planned and implemented communications have proven indispensable to success as it has continued its essential work over the past several months.
In short, never before has listening to and communicating with colleagues been so important. Be open. Hear out new ideas. Exercise empathy. Encourage sharing. Communicate routinely. And actively engage in the conversation.
"It’s an illuminating irony,” said Stapleton. “During this time of social distancing to keep ourselves and each other safe, we’ve become acutely aware that it's the people within our organizations — and our collaborative working relationships with one another — that we value most."
ATCC has adopted an array of best practices that minimize the spread of infection with little impact on productivity. To help you get back to work, we have put together a free kit containing a poster, an infographic, and decals that detail the best practices ATCC scientists use to protect the health of our colleagues and the quality of our research. Click here to order the kit or for other helpful resources to keep your lab infection-free.