The System

Outside the city of New Bern, in Craven County, North Carolina, there is a particular system for residents to dispose of their garbage. Locals must go to the nearest participating gas station and purchase stickers which cost about $2.00 each. These stickers must be placed on each bag of garbage generated in the household, otherwise they will not be picked up during the weekly trash collection. In order to save money, a group of widows has formed a club in which members scout out the open dumpsters in town (usually behind stores or gas stations). Then they call and let group members know where they can covertly dump their trash for free that week.

This story may seem funny, but for the most part, it is true. I have no doubt this also occurs in other parts of the country where the system for trash collection is similar. Why do people behave this way? Are they purposely trying to circumvent the trash collection system in place or is the system just not easy for locals to utilize? If you’re having difficulty getting people to change safety behaviors (like PPE compliance) in your laboratory, you might need to determine that for the systems you have in place and ask similar questions.

In one laboratory the manager struggles with staff who work part of the day in a clean office and another part in the lab itself. When the employees go into the lab for brief periods, they often fail to don their PPE. Upon further investigation, you would learn that staff are not allowed to keep their lab coats on their chairs and that all PPE is kept in one lab store room located on the opposite side away from the offices. The system is set up to reinforce PPE non-compliance.

In another lab the manager placed a permanently-mounted counter face shield in the chemistry department so that staff would be forced to use it when popping specimen caps. Staff loaded instrument racks behind the shield, but when they carried the racks over to the analyzers, their faces were not protected from splashing. Exposures continued to occur. Here the system is at play again. A face shield was put in place to change behaviors, but it was only a partial solution. In order to protect staff fully here, they would need goggles or a face shield that can be worn. Offer light-weight reusable or disposable face protection that staff can use easily. Be sure to give them a say in whatever option is chosen.

Sometimes the system issues are not apparent until there is a safety event, and unfortunately, that can result in bigger problems. If your training program does not include regular fire safety training, a small fire situation may get out of hand quickly. Does your staff have experience handling a fire extinguisher? Would they easily be able to put out a fire? Do they know their evacuation routes and meeting places, and could they get there with ease? What about the lab emergency management plan? Have staff participated in a table-top drill so they have a basic understanding of how to respond during a chaotic disaster? These are examples of some safety systems that need to be in place to keep staff ready and safe at all times.

When people take shortcuts or find ways to circumvent the system, there is usually a pretty good reason, Often, it is the design of the system. In New Bern, elderly women can’t lift large heavy trash bags, so they use smaller bags. They don’t want to pay the same price for a garbage bag sticker that others are paying for big bags. There’s a problem with the system- and those ladies found a way around it. What problems do you see in your lab safety system? If you don’t know what they are, ask around. Staff will talk. It’s better to find out what the workarounds are now and to fix them before an injury or exposure occurs.

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.

One thought on “The System”

  1. ha, we have two kinds of lab coats here, in which the 2nd one is thicker, heavier, wrong size labelled and the chest pocket is sewn into two parts. so the first one is preferred and always grabbed quickly out of shelf. Then, guess what happened? smart people start to stocking the good one in their lockers.

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