How to Prepare for Disasters in Cage Wash Operations

  • Disasters happen all the time, sometimes without warning, at the drop of a hat. And as you’ve learned over the pandemic, disasters in lab animal facilities can be devastating. So, is your facility prepared to handle any disaster that comes its way swiftly? What about a disaster that affects cage wash operations?

    The four main types of disasters that could impact your lab animal facility are:

    1. Physical damage, resulting in wrecked buildings or equipment. 
    2. The loss of utilities.  
    3. A shortage of supplies.
    4. Personnel deficiency. 

    But don’t worry. In our latest webinar, “Disaster, Contingency, and Business Recovery Planning for Animal Facility Cage Wash Operations,” presented by Nirah H Shomer, DVM, PhD, DACLAM, she discusses how to overcome disasters and thrive. Here are her tips on preparing for any disaster in the cage wash operations of your lab animal facility. 

    Create and Utilize a Written Disaster Plan That Includes Cage Wash Operations

    Shomer explains that the key to an effective disaster plan is to have it in writing. The benefit of a written plan is that you can ensure that everyone across your organization clearly understands what to do in an emergency. Also, Shomer explains two different components of disaster plans.

    Incident response plans are about how to respond during an emergency. For example, it includes information about where to evacuate and who’s in charge.

    Business continuity plans are about how to return to operations after an emergency. For example, if a tornado hits your facility, people still need to get paychecks. The business continuity plan would demonstrate how employees would get paid if traditional methods become unavailable.

    What to Include in Your Disaster Plan

    Firstly, Shomer explains that the disaster plan should identify the disaster response team and contact information early. She emphasizes how important it is to list contacts by their roles, not their names. Why? Because an out-of-date business plan could be dangerous. 

    For example, what if there is a flood in the lab animal facility? Likely, the business plan will instruct on who to contact in the event of a flood. But what if the person listed on the business plan has been retired for five years? Well, that would be a significant issue. So, write your business plan to work for you, not against you. Delineate what role the authority is in an emergency and their backup. Also, add an appendix to the written plan that you can update annually with contacts and how to best reach them.  

    Also, your program should include the types of disasters anticipated. So, consider your geographic areas and the types of disasters your facility is more likely to face. Furthermore, provide details about preparedness, mitigation, and response to anticipated disasters. Lastly, you must include some background information. Ensure it demonstrates floor plans, highlighting the location of ley equipment and equipment controls. Also, include campus maps showing the location of facilities

    Shomer advises having this information printed and available in multiple locations throughout your facility is invaluable. You never know if the internet will go down or if an area will be off-limits. So, ensure that your disaster plan will be available no matter what. 

    Receive Institutional Approval for Your Emergency Cage Wash Operations

    It’s vital to obtain approval on your disaster recovery plans before a disaster occurs. For example, many facilities extended cage change intervals during the pandemic. Many of these organizations had to report this to regulatory agencies as a deviation. But, if you get approval ahead of time, it’s not a deviation but an effective solution to an emergency. 

    How do you get approval? Collect standardized data that can prove the efficacy of your plan. For example, if you’re extending cage change intervals, provide ATP or RODAC testing of ammonia levels for the IACUC to demonstrate healthy levels.

    Also, if you get approval for a backup plan, ensure you have the means to execute it. For example, let’s say you decide to do a bedding change instead of a cage change in an emergency. You must document your specific plans in executing this. How much bedding will you need? How will bedding be easily distributed? Don’t leave these details for the last minute! You will want to be ready ahead of time. 

    What to Do During Cage Wash Outages

    Effective disaster planning depends on the institution. Are you a 50,000-cage institution with five cage washers? Or are you an institution with 500 cages and one cabinet washer? How you will respond to any disaster will rely heavily on the infrastructure of your facility. Below are some tips on what to do if your cage washer goes out. 

    Plan to use an alternative washing method. In an emergency, consider handwashing cages or using a different machine. However, you must validate the efficacy of any alternative washing method. Ahead of time, test and ensure that your alternative plan will work. In some instances, an alternative washing method might not be possible.

    Arrange to wash your cages in another facility. If one facility in your institution loses cage-washing capabilities, try arranging to use another. Remember to consider the throughput demands in each facility. Also, pre-test a safe route for transferring equipment across facilities. 

    Arrange to wash at another institution. Some institutions team up together in emergencies. So, collaborate on a contract of understanding ahead of time that gives each institution the right to borrow space. Ensure you prepare transportation for equipment and staff. 

    Implement disposable cages or cage-liners. Ensure you have enough storage space to keep disposables. 

    Strategies for Long-term Loss of Utilities That Affect Cage Wash Operations

    Losing utilities in your facility can seem like a nightmare. Resources like water, electricity and steam are beyond essential when caring for laboratory animals. That’s why it’s necessary to prepare for potential long-term losses of those utilities.

    If you lose water, consider piping it in from another location or a tanker truck. Or keep prepacked drinking water if you have enough storage space. 

    If you lose electricity, utilize a portable generator. It’s a good idea to keep one in storage or rent one if you know you will be without power. 

    If you lose steam, run cold cycles. But make sure you alert the vendor so they can reprogram your machine. Many machines will automatically shut down if they don’t reach a high enough temperature. 

    If you lose sewage, find a new way to eliminate waste. For example, obtain a secondary waste hauler or space for a second dumpster.

    Tips for Succeeding During Supply Shortages  

    Keep a backup supply on site, preferably distributed in multiple locations and in areas not susceptible to flooding. Keep supplies somewhere safe. Be sure to rotate them at appropriate intervals. 

    Prequalify substitute vendors for some products. For example, you most likely purchase PPE from one vendor. If you have another backup vendor, it could be a fantastic option in a pinch. 

    How to Stay on Top Despite Personnel Shortages

    Many disasters result in personnel shortages. For example, you can prepare for disasters with advanced warnings, such as hurricanes and blizzards. However, there is no telling when an epidemic, labor action, or civil unrest could spring up. The bottom line is a shortage of personnel can be just as, if not more, devastating than a natural disaster or supply shortage. That’s why it’s critical to recognize personnel shortages in your disaster plan.

    However, not all emergencies give warnings. One way to ensure your facility has adequate personnel is to identify cage wash personnel as Essential Personnel. Provide them with emergency identity cards or letters on the official stationery, marking them as essential. Also, offer overtime, second-shift, and weekend operations. But remember, overworking individuals is not a viable solution.

    Furthermore, try a contract with a staffing agency. Lastly, utilize cross-trained employees to pitch in. In our recent blog story, “The Best Way to Onboard New Lab Animal Professionals,Jori K. Leszczynski, DVM, DACLAM, explains strategies for effectively training and retaining personnel in laboratory animal facilities.

    Practice Helps Prepare for Disasters

    Lab animal facilities plan disaster drills for a reason. To give faculty and staff time to practice for a real emergency. Use this time wisely and assess your areas of strengths and weaknesses. It can help you strategize for a real disaster. For example, use disaster drills, temporary outages for preventive maintenance, and long-term outages during renovations to workshop your disaster plans. Furthermore, do some roleplaying. See how your emergency management team responds. Generate scenarios to test your communication and solutions to emergencies.