The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) is one of the several agencies tasked with regulating laboratories that use hazardous and biohazardous materials. Each facility or laboratory is given a Biological Safety Level (BSL) by the CDC that is based on a thorough inspection of the facility and their storage, containment, and safety equipment and protocols. For example, a basic lab that researches non-hazardous or non-lethal substances would be a level 1 facility. A biotech company that is researching a vaccine to cure COVID-19, however, would be a level 4. The 4 biosafety levels are important to know because they allow you to tell a great deal about a facility before you even walk in the door. Here are some details about each level.
Biosafety Level 1
At a level 1 facility, you would find personnel working with materials that pose little to no risk to healthy people. Typically, most research would be done on large benches without any specialized equipment to contain the substances. A level 1 facility would not be required to be in a location that is isolated from the general public. Personnel are required to practice standard anti-microbial practices, such as:
- Frequent hand washing
- No food, drinks, or smoking when in the lab setting
- All work surfaces decontaminated daily once work is done
- Personal Protective Equipment (PPE): gloves, lab coat or gown, and eye protection
Biosafety Level 2
At level 2 facilities, personnel work with agents that have been associated with human diseases such as infectious or pathogenic organisms. Different viruses, such as HIV, as well as Staphylococcus aureus (staph infections). Level 2 facilities use many of the same anti-microbial procedures as level 1, but they also have additional measures in place due to the potential risks associated with the agents present. In addition to the protocols in place at level 1 facilities, level 2 observes the following precautions:
- An autoclave for proper decontamination and disposal
- Readily available sink and eyewash
- Prominently displayed biohazard warning signs
- Self-closing, lockable doors on the laboratory
Biosafety Level 3
Level 3 facilities work with native or exotic microbes that can infect through inhalation can cause severe or even fatal complications. A level 3 facility might have pathogens such as West Nile virus, yellow fever, or the bacteria that causes tuberculosis. The materials at level 3 facilities are often so dangerous that they each need to be registered with appropriate agencies. Personnel are closely monitored by medical professionals so they can be immunized or treated as necessary. Some additional protocols observed at level 3 include:
- Solid-front gowns or coveralls are often required
- Hands-free eyewash and sink readily available
- Self-closing, locking doors away from general access corridors
- Constant ventilation to bring a stream of clean air so that exhaust cannot be re-circulated
Biosafety Level 4
Level 4 facilities are very rare, but they do exist in various locations throughout the world. Microbes used are often fatal and without a vaccine or cure, such as Ebola. In addition to the precautions observed at level 3, some level 4 protocols include:
- Full-body, positive pressure suits with a dedicated air supply
- A Class III biological safety cabinet
- Full decontamination of all materials prior to exiting the lab
- All personnel must change their clothing before entering and shower upon exiting the lab
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