Operating with Confidence in the Face of Uncertainty

By Kylie Wolfe.

In the event of an emergency, it’s important to be prepared. Having a plan in place for your laboratory not only protects your colleagues, it also protects their work. Whether it’s a fire, severe storm, or global pandemic, acting with efficiency can be essential. One way to prepare your team for the unexpected is by implementing a continuity of operations plan (COOP). While it’s difficult to create a perfect plan for every scenario, you can help minimize disruptions and avoid losing valuable progress.

Get Started

A COOP gives your lab the opportunity to outline various steps that, with proper training, can be executed at a moment’s notice. This plan helps to keep your lab running as smoothly as possible when the unexpected happens. To make sure your COOP works and remains effective, you’ll want to:

  • Design and document your plan
  • Test and train employees often
  • Review and maintain your plan regularly 


Draft a Plan

Start by developing a small planning committee. The members can help identify essential functions and the amount of effort it would take to maintain each of them. Decide how many employees you need to keep research moving and which supplies to keep in stock. This list can then be prioritized to focus on critical areas, like protecting precious samples and equipment.

Make note of instruments you rely on, including those that are temperature sensitive. Document the brand, model, and serial number of each, as well as information about warranties, maintenance, power supply, and any other crucial details. Also consider storage options with backup features, like liquid nitrogen backup systems for ultra-low-temperature freezers, to keep your samples safe.

Outline remote work practices and determine which tasks, like planning experiments, can be conducted off site. In some cases, limiting the number of researchers in the physical lab space may be necessary.

It’s helpful to inventory your chemicals and reagents often so that hazardous materials are secured and acknowledged during an emergency.

Keep a contact list handy, too. This should include employees and public safety, environmental health and radiation safety (EHRS) contacts, as well as others who are relevant to your work. Make sure your list is always up to date and accurate.

"A COOP gives your laboratory the opportunity to outline various steps that, with proper training, can be implemented at a moment’s notice."

Test Your Ideas

While the creation of this plan tends to rest in the hands of lab leaders, every member of the team plays a role in implementing it.

COOPs are considered living documents and should be tested, discussed, and revised regularly. Schedule exercises often and remind employees of important procedures.

With that said, communication is critical. Routine meetings with your planning committee can help keep your COOP current while training with staff members can prepare employees to act.

Back up important files and keep a list of these documents. Test remote connections and initiate security measures for all data and shared files. It’s not just your physical space that matters, your digital space does, too.

Compare Notes and Make Revisions

It’s hard to anticipate every type of emergency, but a plan can make a dramatic difference. Even if your needs vary from the lab next door, comparing ideas can help ensure your document is complete.

Your planning committee can offer suggestions for improvement based on various tests and training. Feedback from all employees is important.

As we learned in 2020, things can be turned upside down in an instant. If you experience a scenario that requires you to activate your COOP, you’ll know how to tailor your plan and support your process. Most importantly, always keep lines of communication open with your personnel.

Establishing a plan ahead of time can help minimize disruptions to lab operations and promote safety. Turn education into action and begin preparing your team now for the unexpected later.

This content was inspired, in part, by “Research Continuity Planning,” University of Pennsylvania, March 12, 2020; “Continuity Planning and Recovery Guide,” University of Texas at Dallas, March 2020; and “Research Continuity Guidance For Laboratories And Research Facilities,” Massachusetts Institute of Technology, March 2020.

Kylie Wolfe is a Fisher Scientific content copywriter.

Scientist wearing protective goggles