Biological Safety Levels (BSL) are a series of protections relegated to autoclave-related activities that take place in particular biological labs. They are individual safeguards designed to protect laboratory personnel, as well as the surrounding environment and community.
These levels, which are ranked from one to four, are selected based on the agents or organisms that are being researched or worked on in any given laboratory setting. For example, a basic lab setting specializing in the research of nonlethal agents that pose a minimal potential threat to lab workers and the environment are generally considered BSL-1—the lowest biosafety lab level. A specialized research laboratory that deals with potentially deadly infectious agents like Ebola would be designated as BSL-4—the highest and most stringent level.
The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) sets BSL lab levels as a way of exhibiting specific controls for the containment of microbes and biological agents. Each BSL lab level builds upon on the previous level—thereby creating layer upon layer of constraints and barriers. These lab levels are determined by the following
- Risks related to containment
- Severity of infection
- Nature of the work conducted
- Origin of the microbe
- Agent in question
- Route of exposure
The reason biosafety levels are so important is because they dictate the type of work practices that are allowed to take place in a lab setting. They also heavily influence the overall design of the facility in question, as well as the type of specialized safety equipment used within it.
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.
This laboratory setting typically consists of research taking place on benches without the use of special contaminant equipment. A BSL-1 lab, which is not required to be isolated from surrounding facilities, houses activities that require only standard microbial practices, such as:
- Mechanical pipetting only (no mouth pipetting allowed)
- Safe sharps handling
- Avoidance of splashes or aerosols
- Daily decontamination of all work surfaces when work is complete
- Hand washing
- Prohibition of food, drink and smoking materials in lab setting
- Biohazard signs
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-2 laboratories maintain the same standard microbial practices as BSL-1 labs, but also includes enhanced measures due to the potential risk of the aforementioned microbes. Personnel working in BSL-2 labs are expected to take even greater care to prevent injuries such as cuts and other breaches of the skin, as well as ingestion and mucous membrane exposures.