Since Manhattan was first announced as the site for the National Bio and Agro-Defense Facility, or NBAF, there have been questions from the community about potential risks to the surrounding area. NBAF’s entire mission is to protect the U.S. from specific foreign livestock animal diseases. An important part of that mission includes addressing risks associated with the operation of the facility.

As with all Biosafety Level-3 and -4 laboratories complying with regulations and industry standards, NBAF has a team dedicated to managing and minimizing those risks. The goal of that team — called biorisk management — is to prevent accidental and intentional misuse or release of infectious material, also called biohazards. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has hired a team of individuals who bring with them the skills and expertise needed to accomplish that goal. NBAF scientists and biorisk management will work closely together as a team to accomplish critical research in a safe and secure environment.

NBAF’s biorisk program management training coordinator, Dr. Chad Austin, has extensive experience working in high containment laboratories and biorisk management programs. As a graduate student, he worked in high containment for several years and as part of his postdoctoral training, he spent two years at the National Biosafety and Biocontainment Training Program at the National Institutes of Health. After that, he served as a biosafety specialist at the University of Texas Health Science Center in Houston where his duties included developing and delivering training. He continues to train other biosafety professionals through ABSA International, formerly the American Biological Safety Association.

Austin will develop and manage the NBAF training program that will be required for everyone who will work in and around containment — the secure area where the biohazards will be located. In addition to developing NBAF’s biorisk training program, Austin is one of the many individuals who is championing a new NBAF initiative: to become a high reliability organization, or HRO. These organizations have high risk potential but a strong safety culture and an emphasis on planning to prevent major system failures. Some examples of HROs include aircraft carriers, air traffic control, nuclear power plants, fire departments and critical health care facilities.

According to Austin, HROs focus on solving small process failures to prevent large ones. These unique organizations accomplish this by empowering everyone at an institution to stop work and address possible safety concerns before they become a large issue. They also encourage everyone to actively look for areas where there could be failure and determine how best to mitigate. This “focus on failure” as Austin puts it, is designed so that large-scale failure can be prevented.

We are still defining what an HRO will look like at NBAF, but we already know that it is an important part of the safety culture we’re developing. This is one of the many reasons why it is important to use the time before NBAF becomes operational for planning.

The time leading up to NBAF operations also allows us to get to know our team. We’ve hired about 117 team members during telework alone out of a current total of 235 operations employees. We are using this time to develop procedures and processes and learn about each other as well as about the facility.

This last part is particularly important as we prepare for our soft opening. Next month, USDA is planning to begin assuming responsibility for the operation of NBAF’s Central Utility Plant, Wastewater Pre-Treatment Plant and security services — well before any science happens at NBAF.

With a new USDA COVID-19 Workplace Safety Plan in place, we’re taking time now to make sure our team members can continue to prepare for the critical science that will happen at NBAF.

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