July 9, 2020
For 10 years, Carolyn Hall’s job as a Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory’s BioSafety Officer has been about keeping the “bugs” inside laboratories. But at the start of this year, everything changed.
“Now it’s about keeping us safe from one another, as potential carriers of COVID-19,” she said.
Since the restart of limited mission-critical activities at the Laboratory in mid-April, Hall has helped modify protocols in labs, facilities, and workspaces across the Lab. Previously, she worked almost exclusively with biology projects.
“Protecting the workforce from a human hazard, it’s a lot of logistics,” she said. “At every worksite, we work through behavior-based modifications to keep the workforce as safe as possible.
“We are developing and refining guidance for things we used to take for granted, like riding in a car with someone or customer service interactions.”
Lydia Camara, NIF&PS deputy for operations, said Hall has been essential for the successful restart of the directorate’s operations. “There are so many unknowns,” Camara said. “She reads all of the guidance and negotiates with the operations deputies on tactical details and with health services on worker health and puts together solutions. She is now a subject matter expert on the biggest hazard we are facing, a hazard that our understanding of is constantly changing.”
Hall carefully reviews every guidance modification from many entities—the Centers for Disease Control, the State of California, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, and Alameda County, to name a few. She then distills that guidance into advice for Laboratory leadership.
As groups prepare for restart, Carolyn spends much of her time these days walking through work areas across the Lab to assess new controls and procedures. This has taken her into areas of the Lab she’d never set foot in, such as the National Ignition Facility.
“I appreciate the methodical way that the NIF&PS leadership and workforce have gone about restarting activity,” said Hall. “We have a productive ongoing partnership that includes health services to assess and reassess as things change.”
That rate of change and constant uncertainty make the current situation unlike anything that has come before. “Managing fear in the face of uncertainty is hard,” she said. “We are asking people to return to provide essential work in the middle of a global pandemic. This is an extremely transmissible disease. The fear is real and legitimate.”
Communication is Key
Communication is key to addressing fears. To that end, said Hall, the partnership with Health Services has been essential. Workers have been using the COVID-19 hotline, 1-925-422-6843 (COVID), to ask questions or raise concerns. “Health services has been phenomenal,” she said. “They respond quickly and compassionately. Everyone’s situation is different and needs this kind of attention.”
At the onset, Health Services was inundated with individual calls. Through her role in the Emergency Operations Center, Hall helped establish the COVID-19 hotline to track and manage the myriad of calls. Similarly, she has been pivotal in obtaining equipment and supplies for the Lab and particularly Health Services.
“Throughout the process Carolyn had developed a highly productive relationship with her Health Services colleagues,” said Kathleen Noonan, HSD clinician. “She focuses on broad issues of overall safety and implementation, allowing Health Services clinicians to concentrate on interactions with individual employees and their specific health concerns.
“The close working relationship has resulted in an effective means of tracking cases and providing feedback to employee’s concerns,” Noonan said.
Hall has proctored sessions of COVID-19 training, required for anyone returning to work on site, for various groups. Doug Larson, NIF facility manager and chief engineer, appreciates this.
“Carolyn has made a huge difference to NIF and the Lab by how she has handled both training and specific guidance in the face of ever-changing understanding of the virus and changing conditions in the community,” Larson said. “She provided several Webex training classes to the NIF staff as part of the restart, and really helped them understand what was most important and why.”
“And in doing so, she gave our staff confidence that the controls put in place to control the spread of the virus at the Lab would be effective.”
Right Skills for the Moment
Hall took a roundabout route to her current role. She started college as a performing arts major playing the violin but injured her shoulder the summer before she graduated. Inspired by the book The Coming Plague by Laurie Garrett, she took a microbiology class and changed her major. After studying infectious disease in graduate school at Stanford University, Hall came to LLNL as a postdoc.
She determined that being a laboratory scientist was not for her. She took a job at the University of Florida as the biosafety officer for high containment labs. She returned to LLNL about five years ago as a BioSafety Officer. The job, said Hall, allows her to be deeply involved in science by helping researchers determine how to do their work safely.
“Carolyn has the right set of skills for the moment,” said Camara. “She’s always available, she’s patient, and she’s thorough. She’s helping us be on our A game, which we need more than ever now that the world is slowly reopening.”
As people increase their interactions outside of work, the possibility that someone could become infected and bring the illness into the Lab increases. The controls to manage the work environment are even more important.
“Through this pandemic, we are all doing what we can to ensure the safety of the workforce,” Hall said. “It may not feel like it now, but this is temporary. Life will get back to something closer to normal, but with changes, just like after.”
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