Support for Researchers Working Alone

student working in enology lab.

As research operations increase on campus, researchers may find themselves working alone more often than not.

Labs who participate in the Lab Safety Review Program should already have a “Working Alone” standard operating procedure (SOP) in place which outlines safety measures for researchers who are working “beyond visible or audible range of another individual for more than a few minutes at a time.” Within this SOP, researchers are prompted to enter lab-specific information.

Due to the unusual nature of the current situation, additional lab-specific measures should be implemented to ensure the safety of those researchers in the lab.

Unfortunately, there is no one-size-fits all solution to ensuring the ongoing safety of researchers working alone. Several laboratories on campus have devised ways of keeping researchers safe.

Moule Group, Department of Chemical Engineering

The Moule Group has limited research to only those procedures that lab members have documented training on. Additionally, researchers are expected to define what they will be doing in advance so that Dr. Moule can approve, thus reducing any unnecessary lab visits.

Lab members check-in and check-out of the building with the College of Engineering Safety Officer; once in the lab, they are expected to check-in with a friend or colleague at shorter time intervals. It is imperative that the selected friend or colleague be available for the duration of the lab period, and that they have been given emergency contact numbers, as well as the PI's number.

Oberholster Lab, Department of Viticulture and Enology

The Oberholster Lab created a WhatsApp group for lab members. Lab members check-in when they arrive to the lab and then again when they leave the lab. Dr. Oberholster encourages her students to only work during daylight hours during the week while she, as well potentially others, are in the building.

In the unlikely event that lab members must work while Dr. Oberholster cannot be physically in the building (and no other lab members are working in adjacent labs (like weekends or after hours), lab members are expected to check-in through the WhatsApp group every two hours.

“We have a couple of long-term experiments that would have resulted in losing a year of work if not continued. We determined we can continue in a safe manner due to the fact that there are very few people in our environment and we can maintain social distancing. We have another project where the samples will be beyond their storage date if not analyzed and they are irreplaceable. These students have voiced their desire to continue and we worked out what work they can do and is necessary to maintain the project while shelter-in-place is in place. I want to emphasize, that they volunteered to work. I was prepared and offered to make a plan B with them if they did not want to continue. We deep cleaned the lab with 70% EtOH (basically spray every possible surface and wiped with alcohol wipes what we can’t spray). We are not doing this daily as we have limited presence in the lab and it takes a long time. This is done weekly. The only student working in the lab almost full-time, is wearing a mask the whole time while in the lab. Then whenever someone has to come into the lab, they wipe all the surfaces that they have touched including the door handles, keyboards etc. Students discuss any lab activities with me in advance for each day, so I know who will be where when and how long they expect it will take. We created a lab group on WhatsApp. They check in when they arrive and tell me where they are and for how long they expect to be there and they check out when they leave. This is irrespective of time of day or whether other people are around. However, if they have to come in over the weekend or in the evening, they check in every two hours if needed. This is also the case if they are alone in the building. Depending on their means of transport, I may also request that they check in with me when they arrive home, if after dark. I decided to do the WhatsApp group as it is not only depended on me to keep track of people. I have back-up post-docs and their fellow students that see the check-in and check-out and we can alert each other if someone does not check-in or out. Additionally, it means that the students know who else of our lab is in the building. They also always know where I am. I discuss my schedule with them once a week and let them know if it changes. Also, I acknowledge the check-in and check-out with a thumbs-up or ok so that they know that I have seen it.”