Over the years, many safety standards and guidelines have been published regarding the Physical Environment of the laboratory (or the Environment of Care). The laboratory environment is not inherently a safe space, so training lab staff about their physical environment is critical so that they may work there without harm. The Physical Environment (PE) includes the overall laboratory space, electrical safety, and compressed gas safety. Physical Environment safety is concerned with ensuring that the facility is constructed, arranged, and maintained to ensure staff and patient safety.
Many labs I have visited are old, and space is often at a premium. Technology has changed over the years in the field of lab medicine, and that has led to the need for different floor plans, counter arrangements, and even work flow patterns. In any lab, the space should be arranged so that the quality of work performed, the safety of the staff, and any patient care given are not compromised. That means there should be enough space to perform the testing required in the department. There should also be room (offices or counter space) for those who perform the administrative work it takes to keep a lab running. Other facilities needs should be available as well such as storage space, rest rooms, staff lockers, a break room, and even meeting space.
One aspect of PE that needs scrutiny is the actual environment (temperature and humidity) of the lab space. The room temperature and humidity need monitoring and controls in order to properly store items in the space, and to ensure that testing is performed in the proper environment determined by the test manufacturer. Working outside of those parameters can have a direct negative impact on patient care. The other important consideration for the environment is staff comfort. Many building systems struggle with maintaining the proper temperature and humidity, especially in the extremes of hot and cold weather months. Will the lab staff remove PPE because it’s too hot? Of course that is an unsafe practice, and finding ways to manage the environment for staff comfort is critical.
Electrical safety should also be considered when evaluating the laboratory Physical Environment. Make sure employees have electrical safety training, and teach them about common errors made from not properly understanding electrical safety. One common error is the use of extension cords. In most locales, extension cords may be used in the lab in an emergency situation (such as accessing emergency power outlets during a power outage), but they should never be permanently placed and used for any lab equipment. The use of “daisy chains” is another common mistake. A daisy chain is made by plugging one multi-plug adapter into another for length. This is a fire hazard and should be avoided.
Compressed gas tanks are often found in the lab environment, and staff needs to adhere to special safety considerations regarding those tanks. Make sure all tanks are secured with a chain or other stabilizing device. A tipping tank, if it breaks open, can blast off like a rocket and cause great damage or even kill. Some tanks have even been propelled through walls or floors. Always transport tanks of compressed gas on a cart, dolly, or hand truck, and ensure all tanks are clearly labeled at all times.
Other considerations in the lab physical environment include the overall neatness and cleanliness of the space. Safety for the staff is improved in a clean and orderly work area. Biohazard work area floors should be wet-mopped at least once a day. Histology and other lab areas that use paraffin in their procedures should make sure the floors are cleaned and scraped so that they are not slippery from the wax. Laboratory counter tops should be neat and orderly, and they should be disinfected after each working shift using a 10% bleach solution or bleach product.
Education and training about PE topics is clearly important, but it is also valuable to regularly monitor the lab space to ensure that safety is maintained. Perform regular (monthly or quarterly) audits on the lab physical environment using a checklist. Use a complete list that covers all of the areas discussed, and be sure review every item on the checklist each time the audit is performed. It is surprising how quickly and easily things change in the lab work space. For example, an analyzer may have been moved for repair and placed back into its original location- but what if that movement caused fraying in the electrical cord? Now there is a fire hazard that didn’t exist just days before, and it needs to be rectified quickly. Sometimes we take for granted the spaces in which we work, but in the laboratory it is important to remember that PE safety needs attention, maintenance, and regular checks. Performing these functions can transform an inherently dangerous space into one in which patient results can be obtained safely.
-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.