Careful planning and lots of distancing are critical for R&D labs that have stayed open and those looking to restart.
As the world moves gingerly to emerge from closures and quarantines, researchers barred from their laboratories are eager and anxious to return. The pandemic isn’t over, however, and what lab work will look like going forward remains to be seen. C&EN spoke with researchers and safety experts about how they tried to ensure workers’ health and safety in labs that continued running and what they’re considering as they look to reopen shuttered R&D facilities in academia, industry, and government.
When the novel coronavirus first hit, academic, industrial, and government laboratories around the world faced a string of tough operating decisions and little time to make them. Some shut down, some moved to minimal maintenance, and the rest kept up full operation—albeit with new measures to protect the health and safety of workers.
In the US, the chemical sector, which includes pharmaceuticals, is designated “essential” under Department of Homeland Security guidelines, and chemical manufacturers remain operating. Research labs, however, vary. Many industrial labs have been running at least on a partial basis. But most in academia and government closed except for work related to COVID-19, the disease caused by the novel coronavirus. It is a topsy-turvy world with few clear answers.
All labs, however, must embrace a new normal. Lab researchers and directors must determine what will justify reopening closed labs, when to do it, how it can be accomplished, and what to do if the decision turns out to be premature and virus cases resurge. In discussions with lab researchers and directors, two things are clear: it may have been easier to close labs than it will be to reopen them, and finding the new normal may be a multiyear process.
At Argonne National Laboratory, a US Department of Energy facility near Chicago, some 3,000 staff—85% of its workforce—are now teleworking, says Kimberly Conroy Sawyer, deputy laboratory director for operations and chief operations officer. The decision to move as many people as possible to telework happened almost overnight, she says, with the state governor’s March 20 order to close nonessential facilities, which included much of Argonne. Most of the lab’s scientists are analyzing data and finding other ways to advance their research projects while telecommuting, she says.