The toddler’s father let her hand go so he could pay for their dinner at the busy airport. The little girl quickly wandered away and suddenly found herself at the top of a long escalator that was going down. No one was watching.
Mrs. Anders was walking home as she did every day from the neighborhood pool. She was very hard of hearing, but she was as friendly as she could be. As she waved to you while crossing the street, you see the car speeding toward her at too fast a pace.
You may have encountered a situation similar to one of these, or you may have seen something like it in a suspenseful movie or television program. The scenario is something that can create a reaction in you, a feeling of sudden dread, and the urge to take quick action. That’s a good response, and it could save someone from a serious incident.
But is your reaction the same in the lab where you work?
Lisa processed some CSF samples at the front desk that were delivered from another lab. She later received a call from the sending lab alerting her that the patient was positive for CJD, a prion disease, and the specimens were sent in error. When she went to clean up the processing area and tell the other staff, Lisa saw her co-worker leaning on the counter and using the computer with no PPE.
In the morning, Ken dropped a glass bottle of hydrochloric acid on the lab floor, and it shattered and spilled. He went to get the spill clean-up kit, but before he returned, the pathologist walked into the department wearing open-toed shoes.
Now let’s try something a bit subtler:
Robert is working in the chemistry department and he uncaps the next batch of tubes to be analyzed behind the safety shield on the counter. He places the tubes in the rack and carries the rack over to the analyzer. He’s not wearing any face protection.
Sheila was the supervisor in hematology, and she was walking through the department as Dwayne was on the phone with a service representative about the broken analyzer. The rep asked to speak to Sheila. Dwayne hands her the phone with his gloved hands, Sheila is wearing no PPE.
As a lab safety professional, one of my goals is to help lab staff have that same urgent gut reaction- that feeling that something is wrong and needs immediate correction- in all of those lab scenarios above, particularly the subtle ones. In each of those moments, the risk of danger or infection is very high and needs to be mitigated. All too often, however, these events occur in labs and no one reacts. That’s a safety culture problem.
There are many possible reasons for that typical lack of response. People are busy, the unsafe practices are common, or safety is simply not a priority. Lab injuries and exposures continue to occur across the nation, so the issues need to be addressed, and there are ways to do that successfully.
One method I use in safety training (that I’ve written about before) is the development of “Safety Eyes.” I call that the latent super-power that everyone possesses, but it needs to be taught and honed. When you work in a particular environment every day, it can become difficult to see the safety problems without training and practice. Take pictures of unsafe lab practices or problems and show them to staff. Have them identify the issue. As they practice, they will begin to see issues more often. Take practice safety walks with staff and look for issues. These actions will help everyone’s “Safety Eyes” to develop and become powerful tools in the department.
Of course, just seeing the issue is not enough. The second important piece here is teaching staff to respond when they do spot a problem. That can take some training and empowerment that may be new ideas for many. Teach staff to coach their peers for safety. This behavior will show others that safety is a priority, and over time more and more staff will begin to follow suit.
To produce the reaction you want in your laboratory—the issue is noticed, there is a sudden sense of dread or a gut reaction, and then there is a correction made—takes consistency. The lab safety leader will need to provide education about the regulations. Next, develop the “Safety Eyes” of the staff through pictures and safety walks. Finally, teach them to respond to the problems. As people, we are aware of the immediate danger when we see a toddler at the top of the stairs. The possibility of harm is clear to us. If you can produce that clarity for your staff with lab safety issues, you can get those reactions that can only improve your safety culture, and you can drastically reduce those injuries and exposures.
–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.