Biosafety: Learn how to stay safe around dangerous pathogens

Remember that TV show called 24, where Jack Bauer had 24 hours to stop the release of a deadly virus that could potentially wipe out the human race?
Although the TV show was perhaps a little over-hollywood-ized, deadly viruses and hazardous bacteria are in fact a threat in the real world.
If you’ve ever wondered how the pros handle bioterrorist threats, you’ve come to the right place.
Biosafety is all about handling hazardous pathogens in a safe manner. Even if you’ve had biosafety training, it can be a little intimidating to work with pathogens for the first time.
So read on to learn the basics of biosafety and try out our Biosafety lab simulation to solve a bioterrorism case. In the lab simulation, your mission will be to identify a bioterrorism agent that is classified as Hazard Group 3 microorganism – and to help save the world from bioterrorists of course!

The 4 Hazard Groups

Before working with a potentially dangerous organism, you need to figure out which Hazard Group it belongs to.
Organisms are divided into four risk categories:

  1. Hazard Group 1:
    • Organisms that are unlikely to cause disease
  2. Hazard Group 2:
    • Organisms that can cause disease in humans
    • The organisms pose a threat to people who are directly exposed to them
    • The organisms are unlikely to spread to the community
    • Prophylaxis or an effective treatment is usually available
  3. Hazard Group 3:
    • Organisms that can cause serious disease in humans
    • The organisms pose a threat to people who are directly exposed to them
    • There is a risk that the organisms can spread to the community
    • Prophylaxis or an effective treatment is usually available
  4. Hazard Group 4:
    • Organisms that can cause severe disease in humans
    • The organisms pose a severe threat to people who are directly exposed to them
    • There is a high risk that the organisms can spread to the community
    • Prophylaxis or an effective treatment is usually unavailable

Knowing the Hazard Group of an organism may help you determine which biosafety level facilities you should use.
Remember the Hazard Group does not equate with the biosafety level. For example, a Hazard Group 2 organism may generally be handled in biosafety level 2 laboratory. However, if the experiment you conduct with this organism generates a high concentration of aerosols, you should consider using biosafety level 3.

Before entering the lab

If you don’t know which dangerous organism you’re working with, you still have to be careful and use the biosafety level lab that you believe is completely safe. As each type requires different levels of safety (as we learned above) we’re going to focus on just one type in this guide: Biosafety level 3, also called BSL-3.

Doctors handling an Ebola patient in a BSL-4
Doctors handling an Ebola patient in a BSL-4, the maximum containment laboratory. Photo credit: Department of Defense photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr via Flickr 

First of all, if you’re not authorised to work in the lab, you should always work with an assigned buddy who is authorized.
In biosafety labs, there will be much more control in connection with entering the lab than what you’re probably used to.
One of the most important things to remember before you enter is to check the pressure readings. There will be two: One outside the anteroom or lobby to the lab, and one outside the actual lab. There should be a negative pressure flow to prevent the air from flowing out of the lab. Because air always flows from high to low pressure, the air inside the lab should be lower. The first pressure reader should be between -50 and -30 Pa.
The anteroom or lobby serves as an access zone to the actual lab. This is where you get all dressed up to enter the lab! Or to put it into lab terms, this is where you put on your personal protection equipment (PPE).
Personal protection equipment worn for biosafety lab
A lab coat, safety goggles, face mask, hair protector and overshoes must be worn before entering the lab. Photo credit: Department of Defense photo by Army Sgt. 1st Class Tyrone C. Marshall Jr via Flickr

The last step before entering the lab is to check the pressure inside the actual lab. It should be between -45 and -20 Pa.
If the pressure is right, you’re safe to enter!

Entering the lab

Once you’re inside the lab, the first thing you should do is put gloves on. If you’re going to be working with the cabinet, you should also wear oversleeves. Once you’ve put them on you’re ready to work.

Biosafety simulation
A glimpse of our biosafety level 3 virtual lab.

The biosafety cabinet

In the biosafety level 3 lab, it’s very likely that you’ll be working with the biosafety cabinet. A biosafety cabinet (BSC), sometimes also called a microbiological safety cabinet (MSC), is an enclosed, ventilated laboratory workspace. A BSC protects the operator and the environment from pathogenic materials and volatile chemicals.
There are three types of biosafety cabinets. The biosafety level determines which cabinet you use:

  1. Class I:
    • Protects the operator only.
    • Are open-fronted, and the air is drawn in entirely via the front opening.
    • Used for biosafety level 1-3.
  2. Class II:
    • Protects both work and operator.
    • Are also open-fronted, with the air drawn in via the front, but it is drawn through a HEPA filter before being blown over the work.
    • Used for biosafety level 1-3.
  3. Class III:
    • Offers maximum protection to both the user and the work.
    • Are fully enclosed, with glove ports, and the air is drawn into the cabinet via a HEPA filter. The operator is therefore segregated from the work by a solid barrier.
    • Used for biosafety level 3&4.
  4. Class I/III:
    • Protects both work and operator.
    • Capable of running in either Class I or Class III mode.
    • Used for biosafety level 1-3.

When working in the biosafety cabinet, it is important to always remember to put on an extra set of gloves. Before leaving the cabinet again, the extra gloves should be removed and your hands should be sprayed with disinfectant and wiped off.

Want to learn more about working safely in a biosafety lab? Try our Biosafety simulation

There is still much more to learn about biosafety and staying safe around hazardous pathogens. Why not try our Biosafety simulation, where you’ll learn:

  • How to clean and fumigate the safety cabinet
  • How to culture, extract DNA, and perform a sterility test
  • How to clean a biosafety lab and leave it in a safe manner

And of course you’ll also be able to practice and test the biosafety knowledge that you just acquired in this guide. Go check it out!

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