Protecting Animal Research Laboratories

A new type of access control reader that includes multispectral imaging biometrics ensures optimal security.

As the world has become more security conscious, so too have laboratories, especially those that experiment with chemicals, biological agents, radioactive materials and pathogens on animals. Everybody in the research community remembers the horror of extensive damage to laboratory animal facilities and the offices of faculty and graduate students that occurred in 2004 at the University of Iowa. Vandals released lab rats and mice, spilled hazardous materials and destroyed computers and other equipment. The consequences were devastating. In addition to releasing animals and creating dangerous chemical spills, millions of dollars of research data were negated.

In June of this year, E-mails obtained by USA Today described major violations of security standards at a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lab that works with bioterror agents. Investigators found unsecured doors to areas where experiments were being conducted with dangerous germs as well as unauthorized employees in restricted areas.

Today, there is really no excuse for not providing a laboratory security system that increases overall safety for laboratory personnel, the public and the animals, improves emergency preparedness by assisting with preplanning, and lowers an organization’s liability.

Antivivisectionist Organizations Target Labs
Experimenting and testing with animals is very controversial. There are immense scientific, moral and ethical issues concerning the practice. Animal research is the focus of numerous animal rights organizations, including some that have engaged in sabotage of laboratories (what they define as “liberation”). Indeed, wholesale opposition to work with lab animals constitutes the most direct and serious threat to these labs.  Antivivisectionists condemn such work as immoral and fraudulent, and seek to end it through means ranging from civil discourse to harassment (at work, home and in print), laboratory destruction and even death threats. Antivivisectionist leaders have asserted that arson, vandalism and theft are justified in pursuit of their goals.

Regardless of one’s personal view, security professionals must understand that vivarium security is critical for the safety of animals, researchers and the public. Most animal research labs belong to the Association for Assessment and Accreditation of Laboratory Animal Care International (AAALAC), which provides guidance for the security and laboratory animals and research facilities. Their Web site at is a very good reference resource.

False Positives Pose Big Problems
Recently, a major animal research lab experimenting with anthrax and other dangerous chemicals ran into a big potential problem. The biometric technology that they were using for access control was consistently failing to operate properly. One major problem was false rejects — people authorized to get through were being denied entry. Too much time and effort were being undertaken to get authorized personnel to where they needed to be.

However, in addition to these frustrations, there was also a bigger threat: false positives — people who should be denied access were being passed through. The lab, responsible for containing controlled substances, was on the precipice of losing its funding. Its $1 million grant could be voided.

These consequences would have major repercussions as this lab was researching medicines to help people survive from a variety of chemical and biological attacks. However, beyond the potential economic loss and research setback, the threat of anti-vivisectionists releasing animals that had viruses into a population with minimal protection was something that the university-based laboratory could not take lightly.

Optimal Lab Design Isn’t Always Practical
Their challenges were large. For instance, the first thing the designer of a lab wants to do is create a concentric circle of protection. As one gets deeper and deeper into the lab, security rises. Although concentric circular protection is a best practice, this particular laboratory was on a major college campus in multiple buildings. Students, faculty and staff moved freely throughout the campus and within buildings that held the labs.

Thus, security could not start at the entrances to the buildings. Instead, it was first established at secure corridors that led into the lab locations. This was accomplished with simple access control. By using one’s card, one was either authorized to enter that corridor or not. However, security was buttressed when reaching a laboratory door, where the access control reader needed to register accountability, auditing who specifically had gone in or out.  

For instance, no one who has been in a dirty room should enter a clean room. The system needed to assure only those who are clean can enter a clean room. It must also track who has gone in and out of clean and dirty rooms to assure that the rule is never broken.

Specifications for the new access control reader were tight. The biometric reader had to be rugged and reliable. The reader must work both indoors and outdoors as some entrances were outside and would be susceptible to rain, dust and other environmental factors. The reader had to work consistently, providing a read on the first try. Since researchers often moved from lab to lab, wearing their latex gloves, the biometric reader would hopefully not require them to remove their gloves.

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