Imperial College London

Return to research – how do socially distanced labs work?


Doors in the Department of Physics that show new signage: 'Observe social distancing of 2m' and 'Keep to the left'

Signing in Physics Blackett building highlighting 2m distancing and keep to the left regulations.

Three Faculty of Natural Sciences departments have begun the gradual return to on-campus lab research activity.

Labs across Imperial have been almost completely out of bounds over the past three months, bar essential maintenance such as replenishing liquid nitrogen in storage units, and the upkeep of live facilities such as plants and insectaries. As the national lockdown begins to ease, there’s been a careful return to some lab-based research activity in the Departments of Chemistry, Physics and Life Sciences.

We caught up with FoNS Safety Officer, Alice Hunt, Life Sciences Research Associate, Josh Blight, and Chemistry Lab Technician, Oswald Marongwe, to find out what safety measures have made the reopening of labs possible, and how these are affecting approaches to research in practice.

A day in the life of a socially distanced lab worker

You're really mindful of people’s wellbeing. Whether they come back to work or not will be really affected by the whole picture - from commuting at the start of the day until they arrive home in the evening. Alice Hunt FoNS Safety Officer

The FoNS Health and Safety team has produced a series of COVID-19 return to work inductions, blending departmental risk assessments with frequently evolving College and Government guidance. The inductions cover details about how to safely approach, not only lab work, but also commuting to and from College, lunch breaks, and many other aspects in between. ‘We thought through a day in the life of someone using the lab’, says Alice. ‘You’re really mindful of people’s wellbeing, and whether they come back to work or not is going to be really affected by that whole picture’.

There isn’t an assumption that everyone will be immediately comfortable with the idea of returning to work, and any concerns should be discussed with managers and supervisors. Alice emphasises that ‘there shouldn’t be pressure to come back, and if people have any COVID symptoms, or anyone in their household does, they mustn’t come to campus.’

The same, but different

All existing, pre-COVID health and safety measures are still in place. The current return to lab work, however, is by no means back to business as usual, and those first to return have had to review their working procedures in order to make it viable. ‘The problem with biological science is that you can’t just come into a lab and start something immediately’, says Josh. ‘It might take weeks to get biological material growing or precious samples prepared, and then once you’ve started an experiment it’s very difficult to just stop.’

Do I thaw out these precious cells and risk losing them if we’re in full lockdown again in three weeks? We’re asking ourselves these questions and really erring on the side of caution. Josh Blight Research Associate, Life Sciences

‘When we plan our biological research, we’re usually planning the next six months of experiments’, he explains. ‘We’re slowly starting malaria labs up again, but obviously we’re not sure if there’s going to be another lockdown, so nothing is long-term at the moment. Do I thaw out these precious cells and risk losing them if we’re in full lockdown again in three weeks? We’re asking ourselves these questions and really erring on the side of caution.’

One benefit of being forced to work at home during lockdown was increased time and space away from the lab to explore massive existing data sets as opposed to gathering new material. ‘We produce so much data, some of which just ends up sitting in storage’, says Josh. ‘My manager was speaking to someone at a conference recently who spent a month of lockdown revisiting existing data sets, and who as result ended up discovering the structure of a protein that researchers have been trying to define for years. So, in that respect it’s been positive, but in terms of generating new material, in the current climate it’s extremely challenging to carry out lab research as normal. There are no restrictions on COVID-related projects, and the College is prioritising students and people towards the ends of grants too – if someone’s at the end of their PhD and they need a bit of key data the Department is fully supporting that. But it’s not business as usual for many researchers at the moment.’

Academic staff won’t be working side-by-side or opposite each other in labs, many support services will operate differently and desk work is not necessarily an option. In Chemistry, for example, access to campus is via cohorts, one week in the lab followed by a week working from home. ‘The two-cohort working system in Chemistry has prevented a shock to the MSRH laboratory infrastructure’, says Oswald, ‘and protected our wellbeing as we eased back into the swing of things. It’s also forced me to forward plan, prioritise and be patient in order to maximise productivity in my allocated cohort.’

‘It must feel very different’, says Alice, ‘because researchers won’t be able to sit as normal in their office spaces together. Even lunch breaks are at a distance, so people will have to be a lot more aware of their surroundings as they plan their work and move around, to ensure they’re two metres away from others.’

  • Welcome pack for staff returning to campus

    Welcome pack for staff returning to campus

  • A disinfectant point

    A disinfectant point

  • Sign reminding staff to observe social distancing

    Sign reminding staff to observe social distancing

  • Sign reminding staff to observe social distancing

    Signs reminding staff to observe social distancing and keep to the left

  • Restricted access to desks in the Sir Alexander Fleming Building

    Restricted access to desks in the Sir Alexander Fleming Building

  • Empty common room

    An empty common room with chairs placed at safe distances

  • Researchers at work in a lab

    Researchers at work in a lab

  • Social distancing during a lunch break

    Social distancing during a lunch break

  • Work area markings in a lab

    Work area markings in a lab

  • Social distancing signs at reception

    Social distancing signs at reception

  • Social distancing floor markings

    Social distancing floor markings

Complicated coffee breaks and safety welcome packs

Catering on campus is also limited at this stage. The majority of outlets remain closed and the advice is that people bring their own lunch, cutlery and even hot drinks to minimise use of kitchen facilities, as these could be risk points. ‘If they’re not wearing gloves, people have to disinfect everything they touch in shared kitchens, labs and desk areas, both before and after they use it’, says Alice, ‘so it complicates even having a tea break. It’s definitely not a return to normal working, and we had to warn people that they might have to put up with quite a lot of inconvenience in order to keep each other safe.’

The prospect of coming back to the labs was as daunting as it was exciting. I think being on campus for essential maintenance during lockdown has helped me to transition into cohort working. Oswald Marongwe Departmental & Hazardous Material Technician, Chemistry

Josh and Oswald both had access to campus during lockdown, for essential lab maintenance. Josh reflects on the gradual transition towards increased activity: ‘When lockdown began, being on campus was really surreal. It was so quiet – there were very few cars on any of the streets around South Kensington. During lockdown all the desks were blocked off and it was quite apocalyptic, with hazard tape everywhere. Now the buildings have started to open up a little more, but it’s very much testing the water. Slowly but surely more people are returning, but it’s still extremely quiet to be honest. This does mean that everyone’s managing to social distance really easily though, which is great’.

Oswald emphasises that it’s not unusual to have mixed feelings about being back on campus: ‘The prospect of coming back to the labs was as daunting as it was exciting. Three months in lockdown is a long time! I think being on campus for essential maintenance during lockdown has helped me to transition into cohort working.’

Everyone returning to campus will receive a welcome pack from College, containing three re-usable face coverings, a packet of disinfectant wipes, and a bottle of hand sanitiser that can be refilled for free from fill-up points. Departments are also providing disinfectant for use in both lab and non-lab areas. In addition, returning researchers will see new signage indicating social distancing measures, and a ‘keep to the left rule’ will be in place. Cleaners will focus on touch points, like door handles and lift buttons and maximum capacity limits will be in place in various areas.

Lone working and the SafeZone app

To accommodate social distancing measures, some College research facilities might be operating extended opening hours, into the evening and at weekends. Alice highlights the fact that many researchers might not have needed to consider lone working safety measures pre-COVID, because there would generally be other people working in the lab around them. ‘Now that the density of people in buildings is lower, staff and research students need to be more aware that they could end up lone working, and that they need plans in place to make that safe,’ she says. ‘The College policy is still that lone working should be avoided unless it’s really necessary, but if you need to work alone, you should submit an application and do a risk assessment.’

The SafeZone app is a useful tool to mitigate risks associated with lone working – ‘it’s a way that you can quickly contact security,’ says Alice, ‘especially useful at the moment because not all of our departmental first aiders are on site. All security staff are first aiders, so you can very easily contact them wherever you are on campus if you need to’.

Staying up-to-date on health and safety

Alice emphasises that the return to work inductions will be regularly reviewed to align with evolving College and Government guidance, and will also adapt as returning researchers provide feedback on their experiences over the first few weeks. ‘As we aim to get more researchers back during the Autumn term, and multi-modal teaching activity begins, we’ll produce further inductions for a broader range of cohorts and situations,’ says Alice. ‘We’re keen to get non-lab-based researchers back on campus when it’s safe and they’re happy to do so. Even though Maths and the Centre for Environmental Policy won’t need lab-based advice, all of the general guidance on symptoms, disinfecting and social distancing will obviously apply.’

‘It’s nice to be able to contribute to getting researchers back into the lab,’ says Alice, ‘which for the most part they’re very eager to do. It’s great to be able to help facilitate that, and to reassure people that careful measures are in place to keep them safe.’

Find out more

Photo credits: many thanks to Alice Hunt, Allison Hunter and Federica Bernardini for sharing their photos for the slideshow above.


Claudia Cannon

Claudia Cannon
Faculty of Natural Sciences