Now You See Them, Now You Don’t: Implementing Digital Notebooks to Preserve Lab Safety

Digital notebooks
Digital notebooks can preserve the safety of biosafety level 3 and 4 labs.
Image Source: Flickr user

In a recent newspaper exposé about unsafe conditions within biosafety level 3 and 4 labs (the highest levels of containment against some of the most infectious agents), reporters comment, “Vials of bioterror bacteria have gone missing. Lab mice infected with deadly viruses have escaped, and wild rodents have been found making nests with research waste. Cattle infected in a university’s vaccine experiments were repeatedly sent to slaughter and their meat sold for human consumption.” The investigation revealed the hundreds of lab mistakes and safety violations, some of which resulted in the deaths of researchers and may have placed many others (including the general public) at risk.

But if you think such dangerous mistakes are limited to small and unknown lab facilities, the truth is more disturbing. Last year, the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) was forced to shut down bioterror and flu labs after discovering 327 vials of deadly pathogens were misplaced. Most shockingly, one of the vials included smallpox (which is supposed to officially be preserved in two repositories worldwide), which “may have been sitting alive and well in an unsecured US government refrigerator.”

So what is a way forward? How can researchers or scientists working with highly regulated and unsafe materials ensure that they are protecting both themselves and the general interests of the public?

Digital Notebooks to Improve Organization and Accountability

One way forward is to use digital notebooks to keep track of all interactions and supplies that go through biosafety level 3 and 4 labs, including those managed by the government. The above-mentioned breaches in safety are those we’ve heard about, but there could be many more mistakes that are unknown. Thus, all labs should considering using digital notebooks in order to prevent the lapses described above. Here are two specific ways digital notebooks can improve the functionality of these labs:

Organization: Digital notebooks have been used in a number of industries to improve organization and productivity. In the case of level 3 and 4 labs, by entering all data about the vials of dangerous pathogens present into a digital notebook, researchers can more quickly uncover when vials go missing or have been replaced and thus mobilize efforts to recover the sample or track it down. Additionally, information about who receives certain vials or who has most recently used the experimental sample can also be easily recorded using digital notebooks. In this way, the general lab organization of these facilities will increase for the benefit of workers and the general public.

Accountability: As previously mentioned, digital notebooks could be used to keep track of who uses vials of pathogens, who receives them and the general movement of these vials or containers around the facility and even across the world. By providing a recorded account of who has worked with the pathogens, digital notebooks can encourage researchers to exercise more care in their interactions. Additionally, digital notebooks could be used to ensure that contaminant devices (i.e. gloves, gowns) are not compromised. In the lab, one person’s job could be to monitor this gear to determine if it has been compromised in any way and if it’s still functional. Together, these practices increase the accountability of workers in protecting themselves and others.

Biosafety level 3 and 4 labs can be extremely dangerous places and containment is essential for protecting workers and the public. However, if workers themselves are beholden to lax policies or poor containment practices, the entire “barrier-style” functioning of these labs is useless. Digital notebooks could then be used to ensure that labs function in the way they should by promoting organization and accountability among researchers. To discover how the BIOVIA Notebook could be used in your own line of work, please contact us today.

3 thoughts on “Now You See Them, Now You Don’t: Implementing Digital Notebooks to Preserve Lab Safety

  1. This is a great idea. Lab safety is incredibly important, and in this case, it affects national security. If one of these pathogens got out/misplaced/put in the wrong hands, it could devastate the entire country! Using digital notebooks to enhance organization and accountability is a very viable solution, and I hope this solution is implemented soon.

  2. Thanks for your comment Erin! And I do hope labs continue to realize the importance of safety.

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