Mumbai is one of the financial capitals in India, and millions of commuters ride its railway network to and from work every day. However, over the past several years, the available public transportation has not increased in proportion to the city’s rise in population. This has resulted in overcrowded trains and a staggering death toll from accidents and falls. In 2005, a total of 494 passengers lost their lives after falling from running trains. This figure went up subsequently in the coming years and climbed to 901 by 2013. In 2015 nine people a day, on average, lose their lives while on the move.
Knowing these facts, how inclined would you or your lab staff be to take a train ride in Mumbai? Not very. Yet, there are people in that city who willingly get on board every day. These conditions of danger are normal for them. This is their culture. They have become immersed in it, and it has become difficult for them to step back and look at the big picture–even for their own safety. They have to get to work.
In the past, laboratory professionals worked in departments where mouth-pipetting was normal, where eating, drinking and smoking was common, and where working without PPE was accepted. Today we look at old lab pictures of these behaviors and react (I hope) with surprise. But what applies to the commuters in Mumbai might also apply to labs of the past as well—those technologists were immersed in their culture.
Since those times, many lab safety regulations have been put in place, but that hasn’t fixed the safety culture everywhere. There may be, of course, other reasons for unsafe conduct in the laboratory. There may be behaviors that have been held onto after years of practice, there may be a lack of safety education, or safety may simply not be a priority for lab leadership. All of these factors are a part of the lab safety culture. Do you know the culture on your lab?
Assessing the culture in your laboratory is important. If you are in leadership, you should not assume that your singular view of the culture is accurate. There are several ways to evaluate the culture; make a visual assessment, review injury and exposure incidents, or have staff take a written culture assessment.
Provide adequate safety education for your staff. Are they aware that there might be a better, safer way? Do they know where the PPE and engineering controls are? Have they been trained in their use? Is there any safety leadership holding staff accountable so that there are not too many people on the train?
Laboratory professionals have to get to work, but unlike the workers of Mumbai, it’s not necessarily the trip to work that’s an issue; it’s the work places which are not inherently safe. It takes knowledge, education, training and focus to keep people safe in the laboratory. Put safety in its proper perspective: we are not dealing with falling from a train, but we do encounter injuries, exposures, and lab-acquired infections, some of which can be just as deadly as a fall. Know your safety culture, and learn what it will take to make the needed changes so that no one in your lab becomes a statistic.
-Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) has over 25 years experience as a certified medical technologist. Today he is the Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He is also known as Dan the Lab Safety Man, a lab safety consultant, educator, and trainer.