The majority of laboratory injuries and exposures are preventable, and most of them occur because staff is not paying close attention to the situation. They lose their situational awareness or were never paying attention to it from the start. Unfortunately, lab safety professionals spend much of their time investigating such incidents rather than being able to prevent them. If laboratory staff could understand the power of the pause, labs would have fewer dangerous incidents.
One illustration of that power can be seen in a simple exercise. A group of people is asked to read aloud quickly a list of words that indicate different colors- green, red, etc. The words themselves, however, are written in different colors, and the colors do not match the words. For example, the word “red” is written in black, the word “blue” is written in green, etc. This first part goes well, you’re just asking them to read the actual words. Next, however, it gets harder. The people are asked to quickly go down the list again, but this time they are asked to say the color of the word, not that actual word. Typically, this does not go well. For the next step, the exercise is repeated at a much slower pace, with a slight pause between each word. Once a pause is placed between each word, the people recite the correct colors. The incongruent words and colors creates what is known as the “Stroop Effect,” first theorized in 1935, but pausing is a means of overcoming this issue in our brains.
When investigating a needle stick incident, the lab safety officer learned the employee completed the draw, attempted to engage the needle safety device, but stuck their finger when grabbing the needle to toss it into the sharps container. She did not notice the safety device did not engage and the needle was still exposed. The employee stated she was busy and in a hurry because there were many other patients waiting. I have always said that when a lab employee is stressed and busy, that’s when stopping for a moment to gain situational awareness is most important. Had this employee paused for a moment to ensure the needle safety device was fully engaged, the incident would never have occurred.
The lab manager had to speak to a chemistry tech after a serum splash exposure to the eyes. When looking at the work area, the manager noticed there was an adjustable face shield in place but that staff moved it into place only when needed. The tech admitted he was busy at the time of the splash and that he neglected to move the shield into place before uncapping specimens. Again, a pause to think about safety here would have helped.
In another situation, a microbiology technologist was eager to start the day and get it done since her vacation began the next day. She quickly went through the daily checklist and checked items off but did not actually perform the checks. Halfway through the day, she noticed it seemed warm and that it was unusually quiet at her biological safety cabinet work station. She decided to look at the gauges and noticed that there was no protective air flow in operation. She had been working with TB samples all morning. When she reported the issue, the manager told her that all employees in the area would need to go to Employee Health and be followed up for TB exposures. Pausing to perform the safety checks at the beginning of the shift would have made a big difference in that outcome for several employees.
Pausing for safety in the laboratory setting can be a powerful tool, even during the busiest moments. In fact, that’s when it works best. Use that pause in your arsenal, and teach maintaining situational awareness with your staff so that future injuries and exposures can be prevented.
–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.