Biosafety and its level?
Updated: May 4, 2020
Biosafety levels (BSL) are used to identify the protective measures needed in a laboratory setting to protect workers, the environment, and the public.
Knowing the difference in biosafety lab levels and their corresponding safety requirements is imperative for anyone working with microbes in a lab setting.
The following is an explanation of each biosafety level—what they mean and how they differ in safety measures and best practices.
As the lowest of the four, biosafety level 1 applies to laboratory settings in which personnel work with low-risk microbes that pose little to no threat of infection in healthy adults. An example of a microbe that is typically worked with at a BSL-1 is a nonpathogenic strain of E. coli.
BSL-1 labs also requires immediate decontamination after spills. Infection materials are also decontaminated prior to disposal, generally through the use of an autoclave.
This biosafety level covers laboratories that work with agents associated with human diseases (i.e. pathogenic or infections organisms) that pose a moderate health hazard. Examples of agents typically worked with in a BSL-2 include equine encephalitis viruses and HIV, as well as Staphylococcus aureus (staph infections).
BSL-3 laboratory typically includes work on microbes that are either indigenous or exotic, and can cause serious or potentially lethal disease through inhalation. Examples of microbes worked with in a BSL-3 includes; yellow fever, West Nile virus, and the bacteria that causes tuberculosis.
The microbes are so serious that the work is often strictly controlled and registered with the appropriate government agencies.
Common requirements in a BSL-3 laboratory include:
Standard personal protective equipment must be worn, and respirators might be required
Solid-front wraparound gowns, scrub suits or coveralls are often required
All work with microbes must be performed within an appropriate BSC
Access hands-free sink and eyewash are available near the exit
Sustained directional airflow to draw air into the laboratory from clean areas towards potentially contaminated areas (Exhaust air cannot be re-circulated)
A self closing set of locking doors with access away from general building corridors
Access to a BSL-3 laboratory is restricted and controlled at all times.
BSL-4 labs are rare. However some do exist in a small number of places in the US and around the world. As the highest level of biological safety, a BSL-4 lab consists of work with highly dangerous and exotic microbes. Infections caused by these types of microbes are frequently fatal, and come without treatment or vaccines. Two examples of such microbes include Ebola and Marburg viruses.
In addition to BSL-3 considerations, BSL-4 laboratories have the following containment requirements:
Personnel are required to change clothing before entering, shower upon exiting
Decontamination of all materials before exiting
Personnel must wear appropriate personal protective equipment from prior BSL levels, as well as a full body, air-supplied, positive pressure suit
A Class III biological safety cabinet
A BSL-4 laboratory is extremely isolated—often located in a separate building or in an isolated and restricted zone of the building. The laboratory also features a dedicated supply and exhaust air, as well as vacuum lines and decontamination systems.
There are two types of BSL-4 laboratories.
Cabinet laboratory – all work with infectious agents or toxins is done in a Class III Biosafety Cabinet with very carefully designed procedures to contain any potential contamination. In addition, the laboratory space is designed to also prevent contamination of other spaces.
Suit laboratory – Laboratory personnel are required to wear full-body, air-supplied suits, which are the most sophisticated type of PPE. All personnel shower before exiting the laboratory and go through a series of procedures designed to fully decontaminate them before leaving.