While Maria was working in Microbiology, she cut her finger while pulling reports off of the printer. It was a minor paper cut, so she ignored it, put her gloves on and continued her work back on the bench. A week later, the tiny cut was swollen and red. She decided to report the incident to her manager since it wasn’t healing. The manager asked Maria to report to the Occupational Health department, but was unsure if any treatment would be covered since the incident was not reported while she was at work.
Steve and Josh were bored during the night shift and they created a ball made from rubber bands to toss around. When Josh didn’t catch the ball, it hit the open tray of formaldehyde on the gross bench, and it splashed into Josh’s eye. He rinsed his eyes in the eyewash station for a couple of minutes, but both men were afraid to report the incident for fear of getting in trouble. Josh’s eye irritation continued to worsen, and he had to go to the eye doctor for treatment.
There are obvious consequences for injuries that occur in the laboratory, and reporting them is important for many reasons. Staff may be motivated in some instances to not report, but that creates problems for the individual, the department, for the facility, and even for other labs across the country! That may seem like a stretch, but it will become clearer with exploration.
The value in injury and accident reporting starts with medical follow-up. Those incidents which require treatment or abatement of infection can and should be dealt with quickly, and appropriate monitoring can be done if necessary. Some injuries may require immediate first aid, and a trip to the emergency department may even be necessary. Not reporting those types of injuries can be very dangerous for staff. Other incidents may require physician office visits or other monitoring, and employees who need it should be encouraged to comply.
In many work places the injury follow-up visits and treatment are covered financially by the institution, either via a structured occupational health program or through reimbursement. Some organizations may not offer financial coverage, however, if the incident that occurred at work is not reported as soon as possible. That reporting delay can raise suspicion as to whether or not the injury actually did occur while on the job, and since the written reporting protocol was not followed, there may also be no obligation for employer medical coverage.
Departmental issues will arise when incident reporting in not part of the overall lab safety culture. Sometimes there can be reprisals for unsafe behaviors which lead to accidents, but if the safety culture is good and if managers and employees coach against such practices, then there should be fewer overall incidents to report. That said, a culture of secrecy regarding injuries or exposures can also be dangerous. There is value in talking to all staff about an incident that occurred within the department. Staff can learn from the event and have a healthy discussion about how to keep it from reoccurring. A discussion of events can bring important safety issues to light, particularly if similar incidents happen with multiple people. This sharing of information can also promote awareness of good safety practices that can aid in the prevention of further incidents for all who work in the department.
OSHA requires the reporting of certain work place injuries, those that may have led to time away from work or that need medical follow up, for example. This injury data is compiled and reported nation-wide. It becomes a good source for benchmark data, a way to be able to compare your lab injury rates with others across the country. The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics provides this data as information labs can use. One way to utilize the information is to see if the number of reportable injuries you are seeing in your lab is comparable to a national average. That assessment can give you a starting point in determining whether or not your lab’s safety incidents are at typical levels. Of course, lab safety professionals want to see zero injuries, but if you see your lab injury numbers are very high compared to benchmark data, you can begin to see where to focus in on fixes for the lab physical environment or on creating specific safety training.
There is great value in talking about safety incidents that may result in injury or exposure in the lab setting. These “safety stories” raise awareness of safety issues, and they can act as a deterrent for repeat incidents. Create a culture where staff feel free and comfortable to report incidents, and be sure to discuss them with all staff, and record reportable injuries as well. Having reliable national data also provides helpful information to other labs, and better information can help to improve safety in laboratories everywhere!
–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.