In March of 2016, the United States Government Accountability Office (an independent agency that works for Congress) produced a report stating that stronger oversight mechanisms are needed to improve safety in high-containment laboratories. The laboratories referred to are those which work with hazardous biological agents in order to protect public and animal health and the food supply against contamination of those agents. Because of several very public lab safety lapses in the past two years, the report makes 33 recommendations to improve lab safety. These recommendations include the development and update of policies that contain missing safety elements, the reporting of oversight activity to senior officials, and the development of plans with time frames to implement the safety recommendations. The report basically recommends a “Safety Stand Down.” Has your laboratory seen a similar situation? Have you encountered a series of like safety events that created the need to stop and review?
OSHA’s definition of a safety stand down is “an event for employers to talk directly to employees about safety.” Because of the danger to employees, a more specific definition means that all work stops until the issue is corrected and all affected (or potentially affected) staff has been educated to make sure the issue does not re-occur. However, in the real world, unless someone is in imminent danger, the work of the laboratory must go on for the sake of patient care. Still, a stand down can be important, and there are ways to run one successfully.
Once you have decided there is a need for the stand-down, develop the stand-down education. This can include a set of presentation slides, a hand-out, or talking points to use as the information is delivered. Make sure you stick to the topic(s) at hand, and do not include extraneous information, but be certain to include all items that are pertinent to the stand-down subject.
The next step is deciding on the stand-down delivery approach. Will you meet with staff one-on one, in small groups, or with everyone at the same time? Choose the meeting location(s) and schedule the meetings. Because this is a stand-down and a safety issue that must be dealt with, these steps should occur quickly. If you are facilitating the stand-down but not delivering it personally, be sure to give a short deadline for its completion and mandate that all involved personnel are included. Keep documentation of attendance and subject matter for future reference.
Once the stand-down is completed, gather the documentation of attendance and any other associated information and keep it for your records. This does not end the stand-down, however. Make a plan and a schedule to follow-up on the safety issue. The plan may include daily or weekly checks to ensure new processes are being followed or that staff has understood the information completely.
Conducting a laboratory safety stand-down can seem difficult and time-consuming. It may interrupt the work you planned to do, and it may change your schedule for the next couple of days or weeks. While that may be inconvenient, remember that this course of action was chosen to help prevent harm to employees or patients, and that is what laboratory professionals are here to do.
During the week of May 2, 2016, OSHA called for a construction fall prevention safety stand-down. This was in response to a high number of preventable worker deaths due to falls on the job. What safety issues have you seen in your lab? Have you seen multiple needle sticks? What about slips, trips, and falls? If you notice a group of similar safety events, it may be time to conduct a safety stand-down. If you deliver the information, provide the education, and document the attendance of all affected staff, you will prevent further injury and continue to raise awareness in the lab of vital safety issues.
-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.