More diseases, more research, more training-less risk. It’s a logic that guides universities where researchers’ work addresses the growing threat of emerging infectious diseases while keeping themselves and the community safe.
Thirty-nine UGA employees-researchers, biosafety, environmental safety, animal care and physical plant staff-joined staff from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and local first responders in biosafety training at the Animal Health Research Center. During one of two weeklong classes, they learned how to assess the risks of working in a high-containment environment and the procedures, practices, equipment and facilities to control or reduce such risks to safe levels. The behavior-based, intensive program was taught by Onsite, a nationally recognized biosafety training program based at Emory University’s Center for Public Health Preparedness and Research.
“The health and safety of UGA employees, their families and our community are the highest priorities when conducting research in containment environments,” said Chris King, assistant vice president for research and director of animal care and use. “The bottom line is that we will not do this work if it can’t be done safely.”
The university’s growing infectious disease research program is developing vaccines, therapeutics and diagnostics for animal diseases such as rabies and vesicular stomatitis, and human diseases such as influenza, SARS and tuberculosis. Approximately 50 employees work in UGA’s research labs with infectious disease pathogens.
The training stretched participants’ mental, emotional and physical limits. In addition to classroom lectures and testing, they learned skills through exercises tailored to AHRC’s labs.
Participants donned personal protection equipment, including the respirators necessary for working in Biosafety Level 3 laboratories, just as if there were live pathogens present. They were drilled in biosafety basics such as sharps disposal, as well as how to respond under pressure to emergency situations, such as how remove an unconscious researcher from the facility, and how to exit the facility if the lights go out-all without endangering themselves, the community or the environment.
Danny Mead, associate research scientist with UGA’s Southeastern Cooperative Wildlife Disease Study, has conducted research in high-level biocontainment laboratories like AHRC for nine years. He investigates vesicular stomatitis, an infectious viral disease primarily of domestic livestock that can cause large economic losses, especially in the western U.S.
“The hands-on team building exercises reinforced the fact that we all need to work together and that open lines of communication, coordination and training on all levels are essential to creating a safe and effective work environment,” said Mead.
Two members of Athens-Clarke County Fire Department’s hazardous materials response team participated, too.
“The training will help with the decision-making process for an engine officer in the event of a real emergency. I learned how a BSL-3 lab operates, and also what happens during an emergency,” said Lt. John Scarborough. “As an officer, I have established a rapport with a lot of the people who work all over campus.”