Environmental, Health and Safety Services

Risk Assessment for Biological Research

From Biosafety in Microbiological and Biomedical Laboratories, 5th Edition, p. 9:

  • Risk assessment is an important responsibility for directors and Principal Investigators of microbiological and biomedical laboratories [or in other disciplines utilizing biohazardous agents/materials in their research]. Institutional biosafety committees (IBC), animal care and use committees, biological safety professionals and laboratory animal veterinarians share in this responsibility.
  • Risk assessment is a process used to identify
    • the hazardous characteristics of a known infectious or potentially infectious agent or material,
    • the activities that can result in a person’s exposure to an agent,
    • the likelihood that such an exposure will cause an LAI [lab-acquired infection],
    • and the probable consequences of such an infection.
  • The information identified by risk assessment will provide a guide for the selection of appropriate biosafety levels and microbiological practices, safety equipment and facility safeguards that can prevent LAIs.
  • Laboratory directors and Principal Investigators should use risk assessment to alert their staffs to the hazards of working with infectious agents and to the need for developing proficiency in the use of selected safe practices and containment equipment. Successful control of hazards in the laboratory also protects persons not directly associated with the laboratory, such as other occupants of the same building, and the public.
  • Risk assessment requires careful judgment. Adverse consequences are more likely to occur if the risks are underestimated. By contrast, imposition of safeguards more rigorous than actually needed may result in additional expense and burden for the laboratory, with little safety enhancement. Unnecessary burden may result in circumvention of required safeguards. However, when there is insufficient information to make a clear determination of risk, it is prudent to consider the need for additional safeguards until more data are available.
  • The primary factors to consider in risk assessment and selection of precautions:
    • agent hazards, and
    • laboratory procedure hazards.
  • In addition, the capability of the laboratory staff to control hazards must be considered. This capacity will depend on the training, technical proficiency, and good habits of all members of the laboratory, and the operational integrity of containment equipment and facility safeguards.

For Principal Investigators at Virginia Tech, the process of completing an IBC protocol for review and approval is designed to serve as a detailed risk assessment.

Further Information and Guidance:

BMBL, 5th Ed.
EHS Biosafety Group