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Guidelines for Increasing On-Campus Research Activity at UT Knoxville

Last updated: May 7, 2020

This page will be updated frequently to reflect the latest institutional guidance  regarding campus research activities.

Current  Research  Level of Operations:
Reduced Activities 

To date, researchers have been encouraged to pursue off-campus non-laboratory-based research such as data analysis; writing reports, publications, proposals; and other activities that could be performed remotely. Laboratory activities have been limited to those which were necessary for student graduation, required maintenance, and meeting required milestones for externally sponsored programs. New laboratory-based activities that could be completed in a few days were also permissible, but long-term continuous activities were not encouraged unless approved as essential by the Interim Vice Chancellor for Research.

Researchers who continued to maintain laboratory operations were instructed to perform all work safely by ensuring minimal staffing of the research laboratories while adhering to normal laboratory safety protocols, including having a minimum of two individuals in a single laboratory room when experimental work is occurring, while at the same time taking extra precautions including maintaining clean surfaces, social distancing, practicing good personal hygiene, and utilizing smart scheduling and recommended infection control materials where appropriate. In situations where it is not possible to have at least two people present, guidelines for reduced staff in research have been developed by Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) and must be followed. For the purpose of these guidelines, working alone is defined as “no visual or verbal contact.” Safety within laboratories must be rigorously maintained.

The Institutional Research Board (IRB), Human Research Protection Program, Export Control unit, and the Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) remain fully operational and continue to serve the university research community. New and updated information will be added to this guidance as it becomes available. For human subjects research, the Institutional Review Board (IRB) provides guidance regarding whether in-person contact is allowed.  If in-person contact is not allowed, procedures that do not require in-person contact with participants can continue. Personnel can engage in human subjects research following IRB guidance on campus if all other guidance for Phase 1 is met.

We understand that the recent restrictions to research activity have been difficult for researchers and laboratory personnel and appreciate the effort UT faculty, staff, and students have made to keep our community safe. Our focus at this time is on maintaining safety while avoiding damage to people’s research programs and careers. If everyone working in a laboratory or research setting follows these safety guidelines, we will minimize the risk of COVID-19 exposure and spread among our campus community.

Phased-In Approach to Increase Research Activities

Public health authorities have agreed that organizations can move towards implementing a phased-in approach for resumption of activities, in this case laboratory research, only after a sustained decline in new COVID-19 positive test cases are observed over the course of 14 days prior to initiation. Operational phases will be informed by guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and state and local health authorities.

We recognize that all research is important, but in these extraordinary circumstances, we need to adopt a gradual approach to resuming increased research activities so as not to jeopardize the vision for fall semester. Increases in research activity thus must be phased in gradually so that population density and safe practices can be monitored to ensure sustained personnel health and safety.

The university will follow a data-driven three-phase plan to gradually return to working on campus beginning in May 2020.

Phase 1
Incrementally return in a limited capacity. Priorities include positions necessary to campus safety or reopening, or some jobs that cannot be effectively completed from home and are critical to ongoing operations. Plan for social distancing for on-campus employees. Initiation date is May 11. Consistent with Governor Bill Lee’s Executive Order 30, Phase 1 will not end before May 29.
Phase 2
Carefully bring back additional personnel to increase unit capacity and functionality as needed. Refine work space habits on social distancing and hygiene. Target initiation date is to be determined, but not before May 30. Additional information to come prior to start.
Phase 3
Return to normal operations with full staff while continuing to make use of telework, scheduling, and other measures to maintain social distancing and flexibility. Target initiation date is August 11. Additional information to come prior to start.

The UT Knoxville Emergency Operations Center will communicate when phases change. Sudden phase reversals are possible in the event of deteriorating public health metrics. All campus operations must be able to immediately implement a move from a higher phase to a lower phase if necessary.

Implementing Phase 1 of Resumed Research Operations

Initiation Date – May 11, 2020

The following guidelines are to be followed by the research community in concert with Chancellor Plowman’s return to work plan. They have been drafted jointly by the Office of Research and Engagement, Facilities Services, and Environmental Health and Safety to provide guidance to researchers for meeting safety criteria in a laboratory or other onsite research facilities as we heighten campus safety operations during this time. Employing enhanced hygiene practices and social distancing while conducting research are two core prerequisites for protecting your colleagues and campus support personnel

Questions about graduate students returning to campus? Visit the UT Graduate School’s website.

These guidelines are only for the work being conducted in laboratory spaces and associated research facilities, such as workshops and studios, collectively referred to hereafter as “laboratories.” They do not address the use of classrooms, teaching laboratories, or other instructional spaces. This document will be expanded to include other related spaces as conditions permit in accordance with phased-in operations. Any laboratory hibernation signage should be removed once research activities resume so that Environmental Health and Safety (EHS) and Facilities Services (FS) personnel are aware of a change in operational status. Researchers should continue to work with their department heads, laboratory or center directors and associate deans for research to make appropriate decisions on whether activities should continue, be modified, started, and in some cases, halted.

If these guidelines can be met, laboratory operations can slowly resume by incrementally bringing back personnel whose activities cannot be completed remotely and where hygienic and social distancing practices can be maintained

It is  imperative  that all  principal investigators (PIs) and laboratory managers  acquaint themselves with the following  key preventative measures  for operating a safe laboratory or research facility.

Use of Cloth Face Coverings

Employees will be asked to wear a cloth face covering (either their own or one provided by the university) when in public or when social distancing is not possible, including times of brief interaction between co-workers or friends through Phases 1 and 2. The university will provide cloth face coverings upon request.

  • To request a face covering or cleaning supplies (masks, hand sanitizer, and disinfectant wipes), supervisors should submit quantities needed for Phase 1 re-opening to their unit business manager
  • The unit business manager will complete an online request form for the total amount of all quantities needed for Phase I opening within their unit
  • UT Surplus will notify the requesting business manager when their order has been approved and will coordinate arrangements for pick-up or delivery
  • These requests do not apply to existing personal protective equipment (PPE) requirements for general laboratory and other workplace safety. Laboratory and other workplace safety PPE should be acquired as previously.

Health Monitoring of Personnel

Through all phases, employees will need to closely monitor their health status. Please encourage employees to be open about their current health status.

  • Protect your colleagues and campus support personnel: Employees are required to check their temperature before coming to the workplace and to stay home if fever presents. Normal temperature should not exceed 100.4 degrees Fahrenheit
  • Research group personnel who feel ill, have been diagnosed with, or may have interacted with a person known to have COVID-19 should immediately contact their healthcare provider, notify their supervisor, and self-isolate to avoid the risk of spread
  • Supervisors will provide further instructions on what additional steps need to be taken, including completion of a self-isolation form and notification to HR Additional guidance and frequently asked questions (FAQs) can be found at UT Knoxville’s COVID-19 Information and Support page

Safety of Personnel is a Priority

Take necessary actions to protect your colleagues and campus support personnel.

  • Encourage remote work as much as possible for those employees who can do so without impacting critical operations (e.g., working on grant writing, data analysis, publications, literature reviews, etc.)
    • Accommodate personnel who are members of a vulnerable population or have close family who are members of a vulnerable population that are at a higher risk of severe illness with COVID-19
  • Develop plans that focus on creating safe spaces and safe practices. All laboratories, including those active during reduced activities, must develop and obtain department head approval of viable plans that implement social distancing, staggered work schedules, and proper protection and hygienic practices in laboratory and work environment spaces. A web-based mechanism for submitting laboratory plans will be shortly forthcoming and communicated to the research community. Plans must include mitigation strategies, such as:
    • Minimizing the number of individuals who need to physically interact with one another in any space as much as possible and adherence to appropriate social distancing and other public health related safety measures
    • Generating a laboratory map beginning with the entryway and detailing items such as laboratory furnishings, equipment, and other obstructions to determine maximum room occupancy to maintain a minimum distance of six feet at any time if laboratory procedures and/or safety guidelines require more than one person to be present at any time
      • If procedures do not allow this level of social distancing, additional infection control measures such as cloth facial coverings should be employed. In these circumstances obtain supervisor approval prior to conducting any work. Consult EHS in situations where this may introduce new workplace safety hazards
      • As a recommendation, laboratory staff may consider creating physical reminders to practice distancing such as using tape to mark out six-foot spaces for high traffic areas or bottlenecks, or setting up one-way traffic zones to minimize interactions
    • Creating a schedule and guidelines for laboratory personnel that minimizes the number of individuals who need to physically interact with one another in each laboratory room at any given time. In the case of shared laboratory spaces, it is up to the individual PIs to coordinate with suite mates to establish social distancing compliant rules and ensure that adequate spacing is available to enact them. Use of online tools such as Google Calendar may be helpful in organizing personnel plans. This can include:
      • Encouraging employees to be present in the laboratory only as long as necessary
      • Staggered times for individuals to perform laboratory functions if social distancing cannot be maintained
      • Distributing a list of duties to be performed by personnel denoting location of tasks and designating the time of day they will be performed
    • Substantiating the laboratory space is conducive to establishing these new public health norms:
      •  Ensure all laboratory spaces maintain a clutter-free state including, but not limited to, bench tops, aisles, tissue culture rooms, equipment rooms, etc.
      • Ensure laboratory spaces are cleaned and disinfected according to established protocols for the SARS CoV-2 virus in addition to other disinfection protocols (for labs approved to work with biological agents) that may be required by the Institutional Biosafety Committee (IBC) 
      • Disinfect commonly touched laboratory surfaces such as refrigerators, freezers, incubators, centrifuges, equipment controls, keyboards, etc., and workspaces after use
        • Ensuring that adequate supplies (e.g., disinfectant, disposable wipes) exist to support cleaning and disinfection efforts before restarting research activities
        • Creating guidelines for disinfecting shared equipment and instruments before and after each use. When possible, avoid sharing of commonly used items (e.g., pens, notebooks, pipettors, frequently used reagent bottles, etc.)
        • Ensuring personal safety by promoting the use of appropriate recommended infection control measures required by the CDC (cloth facial coverings, frequent hand washing with soap and water, hand sanitizer when hand washing is not available, etc.)
      • Plan accordingly for potential supply chain disruptions of critical laboratory materials and equipment
    • Identify common use areas (e.g., break rooms and lobbies) where people are likely to congregate and interact. These areas should remain closed, otherwise a plan must be created to ensure that social distancing protocols can be strictly enforced
    • Establish how personnel will interact with others when outside the laboratory. This can include:
      • Increased use of phone or electronic means for contact
      • Contactless transfer or pickup of items (e.g., arrange drop points outside of the laboratory and coordinate delivery and receipt of items)
    • Ensure laboratory and building entrances are locked and secured when arriving and leaving
    • Regularly check the comfort level of your employees, graduate students, and other personnel with current work environments and address any raised concerns or forward to the appropriate administrative unit for response
    • Report employees who refuse to follow health and safety guidance if necessary. Submit concerns to Human Resources (HR) at HR@utk.edu and an HR staff member will contact you for further consultation
    • Create a contingency plan in the event of a possible or confirmed case of COVID-19 among laboratory personnel

Urgent Needs, Reporting Hazards/Conditions or Requesting General Assistance

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