Guidance for Onsite Laboratory Research Activities

May 13, 2020 (Updated May 21, 2020 Updated September 17, 2020)

Increasing Onsite Laboratory Research Activities at UCSF


The purpose of this document is to help faculty, trainees, and laboratory staff make plans for the partial resumption of onsite laboratory research at UCSF over the coming weeks.

General Principles

The top priority is public health: not just the health of UCSF personnel, but the health of the city and region. Premature repopulation of our buildings to an unsafe level could cause a rebound in infection rates that would threaten the lives of Bay Area residents.

This UCSF plan aligns with current state and local Public Health ‘shelter-in-place’ orders. UCSF leaders have considered these issues in establishing a tentative schedule for gradually increasing laboratory research activities.

A return to normal levels of laboratory activity is unlikely for many months or longer. We must understand that the practice of laboratory research will not be the same as it was, and that we need to develop new ways of reducing physical interactions until this pandemic has receded.

New waves of infection in the community are possible in the coming months and particularly in the fall, and we must be prepared to return to lower levels of lab activity.

Our strategies aspire to safeguard equity across diverse individuals.

UCSF has established supplemental laboratory safety practices specifically to mitigate the risk of COVID-19 transmission, listed at the end of this document. These and any lab-specific safety practices should be discussed in research group meetings, and questions and feedback are encouraged. If questions or concerns cannot be resolved within the research group, please contact the Chair or Chief Administrative Officer of the department or ORU. Graduate students can contact Associate Dean for Graduate Programs Elizabeth Silva, and postdoctoral fellows can contact Assistant Dean for Postdoctoral Scholars Gabriela Monsalve. The UCSF Office of Environment, Health and Safety (EH&S) is also available to evaluate any specific health or safety concerns, and to provide guidance.

If an employee is requesting an accommodation due to a disability or medical condition, the employee should contact Disability Management Services (415-476-2621) to assess the situation and potentially start the interactive process to evaluate any reasonable accommodations that would allow performance of essential job functions. Should a medically-based leave be necessary, the established leave of absence processes should be followed.

Gradual Restart

Research at UCSF never shut down completely. Ongoing laboratory activity includes research directly connected to COVID-19 and other essential functions (see Ongoing Research Policies). Animal care (LARC), EH&S, and Facilities Services staff continue to provide essential services and oversight. Several labs working on COVID-19 have developed innovative lab practices that form the basis of plans described below.

Any new lab activity must be phased in gradually so that work practices and overall population density can be closely monitored to promote health and safety. Resumption of suspended or curtailed research will therefore occur slowly. In Phase 1, beginning Monday, May 18, 2020, a small number of laboratory members were allowed to return onsite at 12.5% density. A second phase increased lab population to 25% density on June 8, 2020. Phase 3 will start on Thursday, September 17, 2020, with an increase to 50% density for laboratory research.

Phase 3 Directives

Population density. Phase 3 will continue to allow a gradual increase of the research enterprise. Each faculty member with an independent research program will be allowed the equivalent of one person per 2 normally-used laboratory workstations, so that we re-activate just 50% of our normal laboratory capacity. As described below, staggered work shifts can be scheduled to allow multiple people to work in sequence.

Further increases in population will be considered thereafter.

The purpose of this phased approach is to promote physical distancing between people while they work at their benches even as population density in our buildings is increased a whole. UCSF has over 700 research laboratories, many located in neighborhoods of 48 to 60 benches. Incremental increase in activity in all these labs will result in several hundred to a thousand additional people working in our buildings, resulting in a dramatic increase in density – not just in labs but in hallways, elevators, equipment rooms, and other shared spaces. Please refer to the Phase 3 announcement for additional information on specific locations that will require more focused attention to ensure continued compliance with safety measures at 50% density.

Many of our research laboratories are organized in neighborhoods or floors with common equipment rooms, break areas, and entryways. Neighborhood faculty are strongly encouraged to meet and discuss their restart plans as a group, to allow the best use of space and to consider plans for minimizing physical interactions in common areas and hallways.

We understand that these directives do not fit all circumstances – but we ask that faculty keep the health of their lab members and community as their top priority. Please resist the tendency to stretch the rules to squeeze in one more person: think instead about the health of that person and the health of the community.

The following details address specific circumstances:

  • This directive also applies to labs already performing COVID-19 research or other essential functions. These labs are allowed to continue using previously-approved personnel numbers for ongoing projects. However, these labs cannot add more lab members if the resulting total density will exceed that stated above.
  • Faculty with 2 or more workstations in total are allowed one person per two workstations during Phase 3. No lab should have more than one person in a 2-workstation space. If the lab has less than 2 workstations, the PI should negotiate with neighboring labs to share space and use shift work to allow some minimal amount of work to proceed.
  • Many lab members work in space that does not involve conventional workstations (e.g. systems neuroscience, radiological imaging, older labs composed of a labyrinth of small rooms). These labs are allowed one person in the laboratory space normally occupied by two people.
  • Increased laboratory density could lead to an increased risk of disease transmission in small accessory rooms used for cell culture. Rooms containing multiple biosafety cabinets must not be occupied with more than 50-66% of the room’s capacity: one occupied hood in a 2-hood room; 2 occupied hoods in a 3-hood room, and so on. In those cases where two or more people occupy a single small room for extended times, it is critical that every effort is made to minimize interactions and use sufficient PPE. Eye protection, in the form of face shields, is strongly encouraged under these circumstances.
  • In some cases, members of multiple labs in a neighborhood might, at different times, use the same equipment room, cell culture space, or animal room. These people should avoid unnecessary interactions by coordinating or pre-scheduling activities.  
  • Some lab members spend all of their time in animal facilities, cell culture rooms, or other space away from a central lab. These individuals do not count toward the density of the central lab, but the number of people in those locations must be minimized. 
  • We understand that some complex experiments, as well as the training of new lab members, require teamwork between at least two lab members. These interactions are allowed when necessary, but should be minimized whenever possible. Physical distancing of 6 feet must be employed whenever possible, together with appropriate PPE.
  • Laboratory safety must continue to be considered during times of low staff density. The UCSF Chemical Hygiene Plan prohibits working alone in a lab unless crosschecks, periodic security guard or coworker checks, or other communication measures are taken. Those working with hazardous materials are encouraged not to work alone and not to work at off hours when fewer lab members are present. Establish a buddy system with someone in a neighboring space or lab, or use check-in/check-out by phone or text with the PI or another laboratory member. 

Scheduling and coordination of work hours. To allow multiple lab members to sequentially occupy the allotted space, labs should develop calendar systems to schedule work shifts throughout the day and on weekends, bearing in mind that safety is a particular concern for people working alone late at night. The structure of these schedules and the length of shifts can be flexible, depending on the type of experiment and the needs of the lab. Currently, labs in operation at UCSF have shifts ranging from 3 to 12 hours in length. Another option is for specific lab members to reserve certain days of the week. Lab members should understand that their time in the lab is limited and they have to make the most of it. Furthermore:

  • Lab members should communicate openly and often (by text or other messaging systems) to coordinate and adjust schedules as necessary and to be sure that they avoid each other. Everyone should complete work within their shift and not work during others’ shifts.
  • Lab members should plan ahead to maximize the use of their limited bench time, and they should do their notebook updating and other desktop activities when they return home.
  • Lab members should help their labmates by doing minor tasks and experiments that will reduce the need for others to come to the lab.
  • Each lab member’s bench and desk space is private and should not be used by other lab members, so that it can be viewed as a safe space free of contamination.  

Choice of lab members who return to work. When considering which lab members will be allowed to return to work initially, each PI should first determine which research activities are the most important to resume at this time (for example, research performed by students or postdocs may be a high priority if needed to meet a thesis, paper submission, or grant submission deadline). Then, in consultation with lab trainees and staff, the PI should determine which lab members are most appropriate for continuing that work, and whether it is possible to resume multiple projects using shift work. Selections of returning lab members should also be based on the following factors:

  • Trainees (PhD students and postdocs) should be given high priority due to the need to complete their research projects in a timely fashion.
  • Consider occasional rotation of lab members in the schedule to allow as many lab members as possible to enjoy some progress in their projects.
  • Consider equity, diversity, and inclusion, as well as the well-being of lab members who are feeling isolated and may benefit greatly from the ability to come to the lab.
  • If there are questions regarding which employee should be assigned to a particular project, consult the applicable collective bargaining agreement and Labor and Employee Relations.  

Support staff, core facilities, and delivery of supplies. The reopening of laboratory research will require additional staff for glass washing and other tasks, as well as for the core facilities, such as flow cytometry and imaging facilities, that are needed for certain experiments. It will also be necessary to increase the flow of supplies into our buildings. As the resumption of work begins, we can expect delays in the reactivation of core facilities as they adjust to the new demands, and there are likely to be delays in ramping up some supply lines. Furthermore, these added services will lead to increased population density and physical interactions. The numbers of support staff should be kept to the minimum wherever possible.

Animal Research. All animal research activities must occur as detailed in the approved IACUC protocol, and all LARC and IACUC policies and procedures must be followed to ensure appropriate animal welfare. As you prepare to resume or initiate experimental activities, consider levels of staffing and resources needed to adhere to these requirements. If animals cannot be monitored and overseen as detailed in the approved protocol and required for approved lab housing, the associated activities should not resume until appropriate personnel and resources are available. Increased density could increase risk of infection in small animal care rooms, where laboratory staff often share the space with LARC staff or other researchers from different laboratories. In these cases, it is important that all room occupants consider others’ health and do their part to minimize interactions and use appropriate PPE.

Monitoring compliance. Based on good compliance with current research shutdown policies, we are confident that faculty, trainees, and staff understand the importance of these policies and will strive to operate their labs accordingly. However, compliance checks by EH&S staff and others will be used to identify laboratories where there is inappropriate density or lack of distancing and protective measures. In these cases, faculty will be required to modify staff schedules or take other measures to minimize risk of transmission.

Lab members are empowered and encouraged to report recurring noncompliant practices to the PI of the noncompliant lab or to their own PI. Neighboring PIs should then make every effort to resolve the problem locally if possible. If safety deficiencies are not resolved locally in a timely fashion, the issue will be escalated to the appropriate department chair, dean, or research oversight committee for swift correction. Other options for initiating an evaluation of unresolved safety concerns are through anonymous reporting on the EH&S website or through an Improper Governmental Activity (“Whistleblower”) Report.

Health and Safety

A significant increase in the population density in our buildings comes with health risks, and we will need to be more vigilant than ever in seeking to mitigate these risks.

Effective May 18, UCSF will use a Conversa Daily Health Screen tool which asks questions to determine if an employee or student is cleared to be onsite each day. The online tool can be accessed via mobile phone or home computer as follows:

  1. Text "Screen" to 83973 (easiest) or 
  1. Access site via and click “Take Screener” on a computer or web-enabled phone

 Each person needs to receive clearance prior to entering a UCSF building, ideally 2-4 hours before arrival. 


  • If a lab member feels any signs of illness, no matter how mild, they must not come to work or perform any work in lab areas, and should leave immediately for their residence or to a location directed by their healthcare provider. COVID-19 testing is available to all UCSF employees who have symptoms of illness; contact the COVID-19 hotline at (415) 514-7328.
  • All individuals working or learning at UCSF who test or have tested positive for COVID-19 at an outside facility must self-report the positive COVID-19 test result to either UCSF Occupational Health Services (OHS; for faculty, staff, trainees, and volunteers) or UCSF Student Health and Counseling Services (SHCS; for students).

All personnel must adhere to UCSF Social Distancing Protocols:

  • Face coverings are mandatory both outside and inside UCSF buildings, except when completely alone in a private office, alone in your private vehicle, or while eating physically distant from others. For details, see the UCSF Face Covering Policy. Researchers are encouraged to bring their personal, reusable cloth face coverings from home. Should a personal face covering be unavailable, surgical masks (not N95 respirators) may be used instead.
  • When possible, avoid social interactions and high-touch surfaces during building and room entry and exit, elevator rides, movement in stairways, and bathroom breaks. Avoid common areas for lunch or coffee breaks unless you are alone or seated at distant tables; otherwise find an isolated location in lobby areas or outside the building.
  • To reduce viral transmission, all labs should prepare spray bottles containing 70% ethanol or 1:10 dilute bleach to disinfect bench surfaces, door knobs, other high-touch surfaces and shared equipment surfaces, frequently during the day and at the beginning and end of each shift.
  • Wash hands with soap and water regularly throughout the day, especially after removing gloves. Remove gloves before leaving the lab. Gloves should not be worn in hallways, elevators, or offices. If gloves are worn outside the lab to avoid touching shared surfaces, use different colored (clean) gloves to differentiate them from lab-use gloves.
  • Note and comply with capacity signs and markings in elevators and restrooms.
  • When physical distancing is not possible (lab or office spaces with corridors less than 6 feet wide), seek an alternate route whenever possible.

Attached is a summary of COVID-19 supplemental safety precautions to be taken by UCSF lab groups.