There are several potential safety indicators that can be used to help someone assess the effectiveness of a laboratory safety program. The results of a properly performed safety audit can be one of those indicators, and it can provide useful information to a lab safety professional whether he or she is new to the role or has been there for years. You’ll note, however, that the term “properly performed” was inserted, and that was no mistake. Safety audits are performed in laboratories across the world, but in some of these locations the environment remains very unsafe, and performing the audits hasn’t made any difference. Mistakes can be made when performing a laboratory audit, and those errors can lead to dangerous situations. While all audit errors need attention, there are three that can cause the most damage to your lab.
Probably the most common safety audit gaffe is a practice known as “pencil whipping.” This happens when someone quickly marks “yes” on every single item of the safety checklist without really checking for compliance. Pencil whipping occurs for many different reasons. The person performing the audit may be in a hurry, they may feel like they have performed the audit often and just know the answers, or they may just not care about the audit results. Perhaps there is no lab leadership oversight as to how the audit is performed, or maybe the person performing the audit doesn’t understand what the checklist items mean. No matter the reason, this pencil whipping of answers is dangerous. It provides false results, and it masks real safety issues in the department that will likely not have resolution. In an environment where this occurs, a preventable lab injury or exposure is likely to occur, and it could have lasting or even career-altering repercussions for the victims.
Another safety inspection misstep occurs when the person performing the audit begins going down the checklist with pre-conceived assumptions or a specific focus in mind. Some auditors have their minds made up about a lab safety culture before they start, and their version of what they see while inspecting may be skewed. That may cause them to cite a lab falsely and without enough investigation into a particular issue. Some inspectors might be so focused on one thing- chemical labeling, for example – that they miss other obvious safety issues such as trip hazards on the floor. This narrow focus or mindset can limit the effectiveness of a safety audit as it can prevent the auditor from noticing other real hazards in the laboratory.
The third safety audit blunder (and probably the one with the worst consequences) is a failure to follow up on the audit results. In a larger laboratory, a complete lab safety audit can take several hours. It may involve a procedure review, an employee file review, and a look through lab drawers and cabinets as well as a walk-through. However, even if all of the findings from that work is well-documented, it won’t mean anything if there is no follow-up. A failure to review and act upon audit results negates the entire process, no matter how well it was performed. Make sure your lab inspection method includes that final step – someone should review all results and ensure that any safety issues are addressed or resolved as soon as possible. A healthy lab safety cycle will include that review as well as repeat audits to make sure safety compliance is maintained on an on-going basis.
A properly performed audit can speak volumes about the overall lab safety program. If your audit form remains constant, it can be a good idea to train multiple people to perform the audit so the lab can be viewed with fresh eyes each time. Regardless of who performs the safety audit, make sure they refrain from pencil whipping, that their focus is not narrow, and that the person responsible handles the follow up of any safety issues discovered. By avoiding common audit blunders, a positive improvement of the lab safety culture can be assured.
–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.