Publication - Advice and guidance

Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance for laboratories and research facilities

Guidance for laboratories and research facilities, including those on university campuses, on safer working during the coronavirus pandemic.

35 page PDF

454.3 kB

35 page PDF

454.3 kB

Coronavirus (COVID-19): guidance for laboratories and research facilities
Assessing risk

35 page PDF

454.3 kB

Assessing risk

Health and safety

In aligning with the above principles and planning, this guidance does not supersede existing health and safety legislation and organisations will continue to abide by these obligations, including the legal duty on employers to conduct risk assessments and engage with health and safety committees (SRSC).

Specifically on COVID-19, at all protection levels of the Strategic Framework and through all phases of the route map, organisations will have regard to general health and safety guidance and to the requirements for reporting cases.

Employers must ensure that the risks are controlled so far as is reasonably practicable. All employers need to have in place an appropriate COVID-19 risk assessment, as they would for other health and safety related hazards.  This is a risk-led approach to identify and implement sensible measures to control the risks. The assessment should consider what measures need to be implemented to protect the health and safety of all staff, students, visitors and contractors. These will be influenced by site specific factors.  See: further advice on carrying out COVID-19 risk assessments.

Controls should be considered following the hierarchy of control approach, i.e. measures such as working from home and physical distancing, enhanced ventilation and cleaning regimes should be prioritised with the use of PPE being a measure of last resort. Outcomes should explain to others what they are required to do and help staff with planning and monitoring to ensure the controls are implemented and remain effective and are updated in the light of emerging evidence or changes in public health advice.

Employers should keep existing Risk Assessments under active review to ensure any new or increased risks can be identified, recorded and mitigated.

Public health measures 

To stay safe and protect others we must minimise the opportunity for Coronavirus (COVID-19) to spread from one person to another. Physical distancing, hand hygiene and respiratory hygiene and appropriate ventilation are the most important and effective things we can all do to prevent the spread of coronavirus. Essential public health measures in labs and research facilities include:

  • minimising contact with others (physical distancing, quarantine, groupings)
  • enhanced hygiene and environmental cleaning arrangements
  • improved ventilation
  • wearing face coverings or appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE) where necessary
  • a requirement that people who are ill, self-isolating or under an obligation to quarantine stay at home
  • active engagement with Test and Protect, including the use of the Protect Scotland app

Organisations should encourage staff, students and visitors to follow the Scottish Government’s FACTS advice:

  • wear a face covering in enclosed spaces
  • avoid crowded places
  • clean your hands and surfaces regularly
  • 2 metre physical distancing
  • self-isolate and book a test if you develop coronavirus symptoms

Involving the workforce in a risk-based approach

As a minimum we expect:

  • a risk-based approach to be followed to protect the health and safety of employees, staff and students and ensure the longer-term economic viability of the organisation
  • employees, staff and students to be fully engaged in that process, through trade union or workforce representatives

The Health and Safety Executive’s guidance section can help to support employers with what they need to do to comply with the law. The risk assessments required to implement a risk-based approach may be considered to fall in two broad categories.

Firstly, there will be risk assessments to underpin general protocols describing how people can use a research facility or laboratory building. These will address questions regarding safely entering the building, moving around within it and using facilities that are allowed to be open (depending on the local protection level) such as offices, networked printers, canteens, toilets, etc. These will apply to everyone on the site and be drawn up by the management for the building, in consultation with relevant interested parties.

Secondly, further sets of risk assessments will be required relating to particular scientific operations undertaken in each research facility or laboratory. These will be immediately relevant to the groups of staff using each of the laboratories and facilities, and may be much less relevant to the rest of the staff. Delivery of these risk assessments will require considerable understanding of the risk assessment process as well as technical expertise in the relevant scientific operations, together with detailed knowledge of how people interact in the laboratories or research facilities.

Joint working

This guidance has been developed in collaboration with industry and trade unions on the basis that both have essential roles to play in adapting on-site activity to the local protection level. Organisations that have successfully and safely been able to continue essential, on site laboratory and research activities, during the COVID-19 crisis have highlighted the importance of joint working. Protecting the health of employees, staff and students/apprentices has been at the heart of this joint approach which is fundamental to establishing shared confidence around the safety of returning to places of work and supporting a recovery in productivity as soon as is safely possible. Use of the accompanying operational checklist should aid this process, though the specific circumstances of individual organisational needs to be considered.

Implementation phases

Carrying out a robust risk assessment with full workforce involvement (of recognised trade union safety representatives or relevant employee safety representatives) will identify the practical measures that can be put in place to minimise the spread of the virus at a workplace level. Risk assessments should be completed for different laboratory and research facilities within the same building.  The assessment should include a phased implementation timetable, structured broadly as set out below.


Plans to re-open, or continue to keep open, a workplace should be developed in consultation with the workforce, staff and students and updated on an ongoing basis.  Planning must be based around risk assessments and safe systems of work, emphasising physical distancing and hand washing, fair work principles and be designed to enable an approach that allows the organisation to operate while protecting employee health and well-being.  


Physical distancing and hygiene measures require certain activities to be carried out before a restart – for example screens installed, one-way personnel movement systems established, two metre zones put in place, canteen re-arrangement, personal protective equipment (PPE) provision, hand sanitisers, etc. Briefings and inductions into the new ways of working must take place.  These all take time and require resourcing and commitment.


Experience confirms the value of trialling new ways of working before wider implementation is attempted. A limited-scale pilot to test systems, find weaknesses and make improvements before a wider implementation is essential.

Dynamic assessment

A risk assessment or adoption of mitigation measures should not be a one-off exercise, rather part of regular, ongoing dialogue between employers and trade unions or workforce representatives to identify what measures are working, where refinements are possible and any gaps remaining. Reviews of measures and risks should be frequent, with daily assessments of progress initially not unusual.

Open and ongoing engagement between trade union or workforce representatives should enable adjustments to be made quickly and smoothly at the relevant stage. This may include tightening workplace restrictions or reducing numbers on-site if there is a change or increase in protection level in the local area or the dynamic risk assessments indicate this is necessary.

COVID-19 is a new risk that must be incorporated into workplace risk assessments, and employers must therefore carry out a COVID-19 risk assessment if they have not already done so. It is critical that risk assessments cover all parts of the business where there may be a risk of COVID-19 transmission between staff and/or visitors/customers.

It is therefore important for all support staff, students/apprentices and researchers to understand that these risks do not apply only to their working area. Careful consideration must also be given to other parts of the workplace where there is scope for people to congregate in groups and physical distancing and hygiene measures will be needed to reduce the risk of the virus from spreading.

Employers will need to assess the high risk areas that apply to their own circumstances, taking account of arrangements for transporting staff to the workplace, and communal spaces on site such as toilet facilities, staff and changing rooms, canteens, smoking areas and hygiene stations. These are all areas where there are opportunities for staff to congregate and it is therefore essential for employers to ensure these are considered in the development of plans for controlling the spread of COVID-19. 

Those carrying out work in laboratories and research facilities should also be reminded of the mandatory requirement to wear face coverings in indoor communal areas, including staff canteens and corridors.

Utilising expertise

Organisations should ensure their health and safety professionals and representatives have the skills, training and knowledge to understand the risks associated with COVID-19.  Where organisations and their workforce do not have access to these skills in-house, they should explore external support options to put in place appropriate mitigation measures.  For example, through their trade association, health and safety consultancies or trade union health and safety representatives. All of these can help organisations understand the risks associated with different activities and situations within individual organisations and offer the support that managers, staff and students may require.

For workplaces without union representation, union health and safety representatives are available upon request to support the development of workplace risk assessments.

Building confidence, supporting wellbeing

Staff and students may have concerns about how safe the working environment may be and so may require reassurance and evidence that recommended measures have been put in place to ensure safety. Employers should ensure that communication with staff and students on COVID-19 risks and measures for reducing the risk of transmission are refreshed to take account of any updates to guidance and ensure levels of knowledge and understanding are maintained and that messages are not becoming stale. Employers should recognise the need to have clear and regular communications with employees, using multiple channels to reinforce key messages. Visual material has proven to be beneficial in demonstrating changes that have been, or are being, made, especially where language barriers exist.

Simple, clear messaging should be used to explain guidelines using images and clear language, with consideration of people who may struggle with some aspects of the English language and those with protected characteristics such as visual impairments. Posters, leaflets and other materials are available online which can be used to reinforce these messages throughout the workplace. NHS Inform also provides general advice on COVID-19 in a range of translated formats which will help those people who may struggle with some aspects of the English language.

A clear message from employers and trade unions is that building and maintaining employee confidence is vitally important and a challenge that should not be underestimated.

Higher risk groups

On 26 April Scotland returned to a levels approach. There is extra advice which people on the shielding list should follow at each level.

At all levels the advice is continue to work from home where possible. However, at levels 0-3 people on the shielding list will be able to return to the work or study if needed.

It is expected that people on the shielding list will be able to return to the workplace on 26 April.  This is because, from this date, all areas now in level 4 should move down to level 3 or lower.

If you live or work in an area that is currently in level 4, or if it goes up to level 4 in the future, you should keep working from home if you can. If you cannot work from home, you should not go to work.

The guidance on shielding can be found at:

You should continue to follow the public health advice to protect yourself, even after you've had one or both doses of the vaccine.

The local protection levels explain the rules on what you can and cannot do.

First published: 15 Jan 2021 Last updated: 29 Apr 2021 -