How Laboratories and their Systems can Weather Natural Disasters and Pandemics

We are currently experiencing a global pandemic - which, while perhaps included in disaster preparedness Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) by many labs as a possible disaster, still has caught most the infrastructure and health systems of most nations largely unprepared, and is causing major disruption because it was arguably not seen as one of the most likely events.

Disaster preparedness has typically tended to focus on IT and data management risks and/or natural disasters. SOPs center around standard, daily lab safety. The truth is that whatever the odds of a particular disaster, they become 100% once they happen. It's important to have sufficient risk-reduction SOPs in play, and a good Continuity Of Operations Plan (COOP) for each potential scenario to ensure the best chance of coping during the event and recovering afterwards.

Alan VaughanThe SOPs for each of these categories can be very different, depending not only on to which stage they apply, but also the nature of the disaster.

Disaster management is, in a nutshell, about preparedness. Of course, the primary challenge in preparedness is anticipating just what it is for which you are preparing. In the case of disaster management, the possible scenarios vary a great deal - with some being virtually impossible to foresee - so any management plan faces potential failure right from the outset.

So what does a lab need to do in order to cope with the present situation and to be as adequately prepared for any future events as possible?


During the current coronavirus pandemic, your lab will want to employ the basic disaster management components.

  • Inventory
  • Escalation Flowchart
  • Personnel Accounting
  • Communications Protocols

Along with the Special SOPs listed here for disease/pandemics.

Going forward, one should keep in mind the importance of regular review and revision for future crises. It's worth taking a look at the essentials of disaster management in general as we also focus on the current tasks of crisis management and - hopefully very soon - plans for return to normal operations.

Although the potential scenarios are many and varied, some basic preparations can go a long way toward mitigation no matter which situation you encounter.

Disaster management can be divided into 3 categories:

  • Prevention/Minimizing Risk
  • Coping during the event
  • Post-Event recovery (Get Well)

Disasters come in a variety of forms, including:

  • Natural Disasters. These include weather-related, such as flooding, hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, severe storms, being snowed in, etc.
  • Disease, infections, pandemics
  • Technical infrastructure failure/intrusion
  • Physical attack
  • Internal compromise (accidental, fire, sabotage…etc.)

John H. JonesMost would agree that some of these scenarios are more or less likely than others. Until a few weeks ago, a global pandemic necessitating limiting gatherings to less than 10 people seemed to fall in that "less likely" category. But here we are.

The Basics for Every Disaster Management Plan

Here are some basics that should be considered in every Disaster Management plan. If they aren't already in place, you may want to look at updating your plans and SOPs now, to help cope with the present, facilitate recovery, and be better prepared for the future.

  • Inventory-Establish optimal inventory levels for each item, including critical items and items likely to become more important or critical in a crisis. Make sure you have a LIMS that tracks levels and sends notifications when they are reaching re-order levels - or in fact performs automated ordering. It should also perform similarly with regard to expiration dates and disposal (documented, as required).
  • Escalation Flowchart-Staff should have easy access to and be trained on issue management, including escalation process, personnel responsible for each step and department or area of activity, decision-makers, and communication protocols.
  • Personnel Accounting-The ability to quickly determine exactly who is in the building at any given time can be a crucial part of emergency management. Implement systems and SOPs that ensure the best possible tracking and access to that information.
  • Communications Protocols-As we said earlier, internal communication methods and protocols are important - in fact essential - in any stage of disaster management. Additionally, plans for communicating with authorities, employees outside the lab, etc., especially in the event that normal communications are disrupted, should be considered in your planning.

Special Operations Procedures Based On Type Of Emergency

Remember, factors include not only how badly the lab itself is affected, but also how badly other resources, suppliers, clients etc. are affected - which will impact the lab.

These will vary somewhat depending on the nature of the crisis. In the current COVID-19//SARS-COV-2 situation some disease/pandemics SOPs worth considering either as standard or to be implemented upon experiencing the disaster can include:

  • Disease/pandemics
  • Remote working (working from home)
  • Virtual meetings, minimized travel
  • Enhanced cleaning and sterilization
  • Use of robotics, automation
  • Cloud-based computing/data management
  • PPE (personal protective equipment)
  • Lab-provided sample pickup (using PPE and cleansing practices)
  • Client portal for submissions and reporting (reduce paper)
  • Frequent referral to emerging directives (govt., CDC, other relevant authorities)

Regular Review And Revision

A frequent failing of disaster preparedness is only discovered in the midst of a crisis: outdated information and plans. Without regular and accurate updating of information, large portions of a disaster management plan are instantly rendered useless. For instance, if stock records aren't kept up to date you may not know for sure how much flammable material you have on hand during a fire. If staff and work shift information are outdated you may be unsure of who is in the building. What may have been seen as a tiresome and boringly repetitive task of review and updating now becomes critical - and all too often tragically inadequate. Regular review and updating of the plan and related information can literally become the difference between life or death in times of emergency.

How Technology Can Help

Technology has always been employed to solve problems throughout history, and we are now more technologically-ready to implement ways to address disaster management than ever before. It may well be time to factor tech into our laboratory disaster management plans beyond just data protection and recovery.

Here are some tech solutions to consider:

  • Cloud-Locally-based infrastructure and workstations can be subject to the same disruptions as the lab, whereas cloud computing infrastructures distribute processing across redundant load-sharing servers, automatically backup data (best practices backups are stored in geo-distant locations) and failover - that is, if a server fails, another immediately takes over its load, usually seamlessly with no loss of data. Additionally, the system supports varied modes of access - mobile phones, tablets, laptops etc. regardless of location. And for instance, if a LAN is compromised, a cell phone "hotspot" can serve to provide access to the system for other laptops, etc. Or access can be made from somewhere unaffected by the event.
  • LIMS (Web Browser-based)-The ideal application/delivery mechanism is a web browser-based LIMS hosted on a cloud platform. Together they offer the most robust, event-proof data management solution possible. Accessible from anywhere yet fully secure, constantly maintained, updated and backed up using the latest best practices and technology, this type of setup is likely the most suited to disaster preparedness, management and recovery for a laboratory.
  • Cloud-interfaced instruments, systems (IOT)-The Internet-Of-Things (IOT) is the latest tech trend linking objects so they can communicate directly over the Internet. Adjusting your thermostat from your cell phone, monitoring security cameras, etc. are all examples of this. Labs are fast embracing the technology to manage and automate instrument data transfer and reporting and much more, securely and reliably.
  • Robotics, automation-Where robotics and automation are employed, especially if cloud-managed, the vulnerability to human error or localized failures is reduced. For instance, in a radiation-compromised environment, remotely controlled robotics and automated processes can continue without human risk.
  • Cloud-based communications - messaging, collaboration-As we have seen, communication is vital in an emergency, both internally and between the lab and outside entities. Cloud-based messaging and collaborative apps ensure maximum capability.
  • Other cloud-based apps-As discussed above regarding cloud technology generally, apps that reside in the cloud are particularly apt for disaster preparedness, management and recovery, as they are robust, secure and far more likely to be unaffected and operational in challenging circumstances. The more cloud-based, paperless and automated the lab, the better suited to disaster management.