New Lab Coat Dispensing System Helps Keep Research Areas Safer

Kingsley Odega, a graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences, demonstrates the new lab coat system, by entering his selection, top; picking up his coat, middle; and returning his coat, bottom.
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Kingsley Odega, a graduate student in the Department of Biological Sciences, demonstrates the new lab coat system, by entering his selection, top; picking up his coat, middle; and returning his coat, bottom.

Even before the COVID-19 pandemic, researchers at University of Arkansas have been coming up with innovative ways to create new lab procedures and practices to help keep students, faculty and staff as safe as possible.

One such new practice that was recently adopted is a set of automatic lab coat dispensing and return units that were installed in the Champions Hall and Discovery Hall buildings for students and faculty in the Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences teaching and research labs, and all who participate in labs in these buildings.

“This program is part of our effort to increase safety in our labs and ensure the health and wellbeing of our students, faculty and staff during this pandemic and beyond,” said Wesley Stites, U of A’s associate vice chancellor for research and professor of biochemistry.

Stites said working to get the machines on campus has taken about 20 months of planning and that while the new process will be especially beneficial during the COVID-19 pandemic, the virus almost derailed the project’s plan for a fall 2020 launch.

The machines are intended for undergraduate students enrolled in a biology or chemistry class and researchers in those areas, including faculty, staff, graduate students, and undergraduates.

Because of this focus, the program launched with the Department of Biological Sciences and the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry for now, but Stites and others on campus say they anticipate other departments may be interested in joining the program, too, and more machines could be installed as warranted.  

David McNabb, chair of biological sciences, said to use the machines a student or faculty member would swipe their U of A I.D. and then follow the prompts to select the type of coat required for the course they are enrolled in or teaching.

"They'd get regular white coats for many labs, or a blue fire resistant coat. Then, after completing the process by selecting the appropriate coat size, the machine dispenses it," McNabb said. "Think of it like checking out a book from the library."

After they are done using the coat, students and faculty members can again swipe their I.D. to return the used coat, which will then be picked up, laundered and restocked as part of the Cintas Garment Dispensing Solution, McNabb said.

“This way we are making sure our folks aren’t coming into contact with others’ soiled coats, we’re able to provide clean coats on demand, and we are hopefully making our labs and campus safer for all involved,” said Matt Mcintosh, chair of chemistry and biochemistry.

Stites agreed, adding, “It wasn’t easy implementing a new system in the midst of a pandemic, but this team, our colleagues in Environmental Health and Safety, and Dean Todd Shields were all strong advocates for installing this system, as they have been for anything that will keep our campus community as well as possible.”


Andra Parrish Liwag, director of communications
Fulbright College of Arts and Sciences


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