Safety Comes First: the Award Winning PC3 Lab
In 2011, the Faculty of Health and Medical Sciences at the University of Auckland underwent a massive refurbishment project. A core component of the project was to construct a 100 square metre PC3 or physical containment laboratory.
Physical containment or ‘PC’ is a reference to the Australian/New Zealand Standards for physical containment laboratories (AS/NZS 2243.3:2010 Safety in laboratories – microbiological safety and containment). The number three refers to the level of risk associated with the microbiological work, being level three of four levels of risk in total.
Level three recognises that:
- the practices and equipment applicable for clinical and diagnostic work includes indigenous or exotic microorganisms; and
- there is a risk of serious infection to humans, animals and plants.
Safeguards such as airlocks, door seals, security, decontamination, pressure steam sterilisation, waste treatment, alarms and additional communication systems are therefore required in a PC3 lab.
The PC3 lab at the University consists of two separate laboratory units, designed in accordance with the PC3 regulations, and a separate workroom which sits externally to the laboratory for notetaking and bookwork.
The University sought the expertise of BTL to install pressure and decontamination system controls. Unlike most PC laboratories, which are connected to the wider BMS, this is a fully standalone system to ensure quality control and enhance security measures.
BTL also designed a touch screen, user-friendly interface for the laboratory users.
Pressure and decontamination system
PC3 labs require constant negative internal pressure relative to external air pressure. This prevents microorganisms within the laboratory from escaping. PC3 labs also require dedicated vacuum systems to prevent the recirculation of air into non-containment areas.
We installed a pressure and decontamination control system using Siemens Desigo PX automation stations. This system controls the speed, and timing, of the fans which push more or less air into the laboratory.
Air movement is directed through a HEPA filtration system, which captures and filters out microorganisms, before leaving the room.
Many safeguards were built into the system, including pressure detection software. This is because if the laboratory is over pressurised, it will blow, if it is under pressurised, the ceilings may cave.
We also installed audible warning systems to alert laboratory occupants to any problems including pressure, spill detection, power failure and generator failure.
Touch screen interface and ongoing operation procedures
We installed a Red Lion touch screen interface so that users can check the safety of the lab and operate the decontamination system. We designed a bespoke interface that is logical and self explanatory. Users require minimal training in order to use it.
As is the case with most of our clients, BTL carries out monthly controls testing on an ongoing basis as well as servicing and maintenance. The system is designed to dial out alarms to BTL automatically – we attend to any issues directly.
The standards required of PC laboratories are rigorous and require approval from a regulator upon inspection. The most obvious and concerning error can be if the lab does not hold pressure within the room pressure testing acceptance criteria stipulated by the regulator. For this reason, certification is difficult to achieve, and most PC laboratories fail their first inspection.
This was not the case for the University’s PC3 lab. BTL, in collaboration with wider stakeholders, received certification on the first try to deliver New Zealand’s first fully compliant AS/NZS2243.3 2010 PC3 laboratory.
After its completion in June 2011, the PC3 lab won the Gold award at the Association of Consulting Engineers NZ (ACENZ) annual Innovate awards ceremony. This is one of New Zealand’s most prestigious awards for engineering design.