As the years have passed, I have noticed many changes in the toilet paper dispensers in the healthcare setting. First there was the standard rolling style. This was great- you could get as much paper as you wanted, and the only issue was whether or not the roll was installed properly (I prefer “over”). The next style to come along was the bumpy roller. As it rolled out, the lop-sided holder would cause tissue to rip off before the user was ready. Then came covered paper holders that forced the user to reach under a sharp edge for paper access. The latest version I have seen completely covers the roll leaving a tiny access port that allows one piece of paper to be ripped off at a time.
As each dispenser style was replaced by a newer, more insidious model, I began to wonder why hospitals were being so cheap with the paper. Was it being stolen often? Was there a black market for toilet paper? Did the hospitals understand that each newer model forced staff to remain in the rest rooms for longer periods of time in order to get an adequate tissue supply? Surely this was affecting productivity in the work place. Clearly I had given this too much thought, and I let it bother me. I learned this year, however, that I was wrong about the topic for many years. I found out that in hospital rooms with patients under contact precautions (such as patients who have contracted C. difficile) all of the open paper products must be discarded. In fact, it is a common practice to dispose of any open tissue when any patient room is cleaned. This latest dispenser designs prevents the wasting of paper and actually saves money. Once I received education about the issue, I had a better mindset about the tissue issue.
This is often true with laboratory safety, and providing the necessary education can truly improve safety compliance. There are many who have worked in the lab setting for years, and some have ignored safety regulations while others have followed them grudgingly. Often, the staff approach to lab safety can be improved with basic knowledge; information about the regulations, leadership expectations, and potential consequences of non-compliance.
I approached a lab manager about the need for his staff to utilize face protection when pouring chemicals. He said he was not aware of the need, and it would be an enormous change for the staff. We had a discussion about OSHA’s Chemical Hygiene standard and the Bloodborne Pathogen standard, both of which require face protection when handling open specimens and chemicals. Once he knew this and could also locate it in the safety policies, he immediately covered the information with his staff and compliance was improved. In this case, simple knowledge of the regulations was enough reason for the lab safety to be improved. Knowing the reason why is an important motivator for lab staff.
Lab leaders can make a strong impact on PPE compliance both by voicing expectations with staff and by being a good role model. If you lead lab safety, talk to new employees about what is expected, and regularly remind current staff about the safety policies that are to be followed. Every successful leader also has to be a positive role model. If you expect certain safety practices to be followed, you need to make sure you follow them when you are in the lab as well. A safety professional that walks through the lab in mesh sneakers is going to have a (pardon the pun) paper-thin positive impact on the overall culture.
Some long-term lab employees who regularly comply with safety regulations do so because they have learned an unfortunate lesson. Lab staff that has been the victim of an exposure or injury knows the consequences, and sometimes the cost has been very high. Exposures from an unknown source, for example, can result in treatments that cause illness and that will interfere with personal lives. An exposure that results in contracting an illness or a career-altering injury can be devastating. Our goal as lab safety professionals should be to get staff to comply with regulations proactively, rather than as a response to an incident. Teaching about potential consequences often can have an impact on safety behaviors. You may be surprised at how little laboratorians (and lab leaders) may think of the effects of poor safety conduct. Use real life incidents to tell stories and discuss other possible bad outcomes of non-compliance.
As the average age of laboratory professionals in the country continues to rise, we may be working with some folks who have had the same weak safety mindset for quite some time. They remember the days of eating, drinking and smoking in the lab, and they don’t understand why all of these rules are now in place. They’re healthy today, aren’t they? It’s time to change that way of thinking. It’s time to explain that while they may have practiced unsafe behaviors without incident, it just means they were lucky, not smart. Getting staff to think about the regulations, the expectations, and the consequences will help them to have a new and positive mindset about the lab safety issue.
-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.