Construction Zone: Staying Safe During Lab Renovations

Instead of brand-new construction, many laboratories are opting for a complete overhaul in existing space. However, with that upgrade comes a host of safety concerns.

Any homeowner or lab manager who has undergone a recent space renovation knows one thing is certain: everyone is renovating, and everyone wants a fresh new design. With laboratory spaces, however, new designs carry a host of concerns that must be addressed early in the process.

During the recent 2021 Lab Manager Design Digital Summit, a featured webinar focused on the “Safety Concerns During the Renovation and Expansion of Existing Labs.” Presenter Robert DeGenova, a senior planner at Flad Architects based in San Francisco, Calif., highlighted his firm’s method of transforming laboratory spaces of the past into today’s modern facilities.

“Over the past 20 years, the number of laboratory renovations we have undertaken has eclipsed the stand-alone new construction of laboratories,” he explains.

Eliminating the Risks

“Renovating an old building that was built in the 1960s or 80s for modern day use is very challenging,” DeGenova says.

Flad Architects starts with a “due diligence assessment” of the existing conditions and the immediate concern is identifying the potential safety risks. The most common risks are:

  • Hazardous materials — physical and health hazards
  • Infectious diseases — biological
  • Traces of radioactivity, magnetic, and electrical hazards

“The route of exposure to these hazards is through surface contact and inhalation, so as architects and engineers who design lab facility renovations, we’re looking at a combination of isolation and containment to try to protect people from the risk of doing laboratory research,” DeGenova says.

When starting a new project, however, the greatest challenge can be promoting a culture of laboratory safety, DeGenova says.

“If people have been in a lab for many years, even decades, it can be difficult to change behaviors,” he explains. “So, we depend on the institution’s Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) personnel to help us understand what’s possible and what they would like to change. We need to help people follow more correct behaviors.”

EHS personnel are critical to the modernization of any existing laboratory since they understand how things work and have particular ways of working. Flad consults EHS personnel at every stage:

  • Request chemical inventories early
  • Request an equipment inventory early
  • Request documentation about existing Standard Operating Procedures
  • Request EHS personnel review and approve plans at all phases

“The idea of promoting lab safety is really a very collaborative effort with architects, engineers and EHS personnel,” DeGenova adds. All parties need to work together to meet the end goal.

Follow the Codes

“When modernizing older buildings to where we are today, thankfully, we have model building codes that address life safety,” De Genova explains.

Firms like Flad Architects use three guides almost daily: International Building Code (IBC), International Fire Code, and NPFA-45 (Standard on Fire Protection for Laboratories Using Chemicals. These tools address design and installation of innovative materials that “meet or exceed public health and safety goals.” One component, for instance, are data tables that give the maximum allowable quantities (MAQs) of the health hazards or chemicals that are permitted within a control area — or building floor. As you progress to higher floors within a building, the MAQs decreases due to fire safety codes.

“It’s harder to fight a fire as you go to higher floors,” DeGenova explains. “So, more chemicals are allowed in a building’s basement than its fifth floor.”

Beyond fire and hazard codes, renovations must also consider factors such as laboratory hygiene, creating more space within aisles, and proper disposal of waste.

Renovating Post-COVID

Like everything else in the world, laboratory design needs have changed since the global pandemic. When working on lab renovations, designs now include considerations for:

  • Health Kiosks/Sanitation Stations — Provide medical and sanitation supplies (face masks, sanitary tissue, hand disinfectant) dispersed around the building at major entrances, common spaces, and meeting rooms.
  • Recycle/Trash/Compost — Waste receptables (biohazard waste, red bag waste, recyclables) placed in a contained location.
  • Office Separation — Workstations must be separated to maintain recommended distance. “In older labs there was no segregation of lab and office, so you had contaminated lab coats hanging everywhere,” DeGenova says.
  • Meeting — Collaboration space must be adjusted as the maximum headcount in conference rooms are limited.
  • Virtual Meetings — Digital virtual collaboration needs to be met through equipment. “We designed a lab where we provided iPads on the post of hoods so there can be conversations across continents between people working in the labs,” DeGenova says.

While tearing down and renovating can be a costly and inconvenient, the end-result will reveal an improved space with up-to-date technology and innovation that makes for a smoother work process. Bear through!

Fauntleroy Shaw is a freelance writer based in Carmel, Ind. She is a regular contributor to Endocrine News.

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