When you put your money into a vending machine, there is always a gamble. There is a risk of the machine not working- it will take your money but not dispense any products, or the item might just get stuck inside the machine and no amount of banging or tipping will help. As humans, though, we take that risk, and the “danger” is only the loss of some money.
The potential danger for a patient in the hospital can be higher. For years, healthcare organizations have been working with other agencies to improve patient safety. Two professions that often serve as the gold standards of safety culture are the airline and nuclear industries. I have seen many speakers over the years from those agencies give amazing speeches on attaining such high safety ratings. On my more cynical days, I often think that hospital caregivers will probably never reach the same level of safety that is seen in the nuclear and airline industries, and I feel there is a “logical” reason for that. If a pilot or an employee at a nuclear plant makes an error, it potentially places his or her own life at risk, so more attention is paid and fewer errors are made. If an employee makes a mistake when treating patients, the error affects the patient and not the employee, so paying constant attention may not seem as urgent to the worker (I told you these were cynical thoughts).
Now let’s go back to the vending machine. There is some risk to take when putting money into the machine, but once the money is accepted, we feel free to make our selection. Now, if you’ve ever watched someone make such a selection, you may notice that they will not risk making a mistake- they will check, double-check, and even triple-check to make sure they press the right button combination so they get the correct item. The outcome of any mistake made here directly affects the person craving that specific soda or candy bar, so the caution taken to ensure a proper selection is greater. Is that just human behavior? Do we make safer choices if the risk directly affects us?
If that theory is true, then laboratory employees should always work safely. They should always wear proper PPE, they should never eat or drink in the labs, and they would never use their cell phones in the department. Yet many lab safety professionals know that these unsafe behaviors still exist, even in today’s world where we handle highly infectious organisms and deal with bloodborne pathogens daily. If unsafe behaviors lead to exposure- to harm that directly affects the employee- why do these behaviors remain? What’s missing from the picture? I believe the answer lies somewhere between complacency and education, but I also believe both can be handled with increased safety awareness.
Staff who have been in the lab for many years can lose their respect for the chemicals and samples they handle every day. They know that they have worked with them for many years with no negative outcomes, and older lab employees remember the days when all of those unsafe behaviors ran rampantly. Ask a mature lab tech about smoking in the lab, placing party casseroles in the microbiology incubator to keep it warm for the party, and even mouth pipetting. Many laboratory employees worked in environments like that and came out unscathed. But not everyone did.
The reason OSHA and other lab accrediting agencies put forth more stringent safety regulations over the years is because so many lab employees were infected, injured, or killed as a direct result of those unsafe actions. Even in the span of my ten years in lab safety, I can tell a different horror story to each person who says they are fine not paying attention to safety rules. It’s important to do that. Injuries and exposures occur every day in labs, and if they happen in your lab, it is vital the story is told to other staff. Transparency and discussing methods of prevention with staff makes an impact because it makes the danger real and more personal. If you’re in a lab where accidents are rare, that’s great- but make sure you continually raise awareness of the inherent dangers in the lab work place by finding stories of events in other labs and talking about them. Tell stories of near miss events as well. It is good to discuss events that were averted through solid safety practices as well.
Lab safety education, both initial and on-going, are key to helping staff understand the environments in which they work. Safety competencies, drills, and tests are good tools to keep awareness of the lab’s safety issues on the minds of employees every day. Telling safety stories and sharing incidents are other actions that can also reduce safety complacency. Every day our employees come to work, and the potential dangerous possibilities are always there in the lab “vending machine.” Help them to be careful to make the correct selection so they can remain healthy and happy with the career choice they have made.
–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.