The severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS)-associated coronavirus causes severe disease, is transmissible to the community and there is no effective prophylaxis or treatment – perhaps fulfilling the criteria for biohazard group 3 or 4. The recommendation to use Biosafety Level (BSL)3 practices within a BSL2 environment appears to have been a practical decision based on available resources; most diagnostic laboratories operate at BSL2. Safety is achieved with controls in administration, engineering and personal protective equipment/behaviour. At the heart of every safety policy is a risk assessment based on the exact manipulations employed. Excessive administrative and engineering controls are less important than the training and personal attitudes, abilities and understanding of the staff. The SARS outbreak focused our attention on the safety aspects of common mundane tasks, such as decapping blood tubes. Laboratories often claim they follow certain practices but casual observation does not always support these claims. Guidelines differed and created uncertainty. This was stressful for laboratory staff held accountable for their implementation. Attempts to categorise risks and their management into neatly wrapped parcels are attractive, but closer inspection reveals a subjective element that allows doubt to creep in with varying interpretations of the literature. Staff most at risk were those handling respiratory samples. Staff receiving samples via pneumatic tubes had least control over their exposure and were potentially exposed to aerosols from leaking samples. Risk assessment remains a balance between cost and benefit.
In Singapore, the majority of patients suffering from the severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) were cared for at Tan Tock Seng Hospital. The dramatic and serious nature of this outbreak in 2003 focussed unprecedented attention on laboratory safety practices.
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