From Safety Eyes to X-Ray Vision

In the Immunohistochemical stain lab, Rory made up his special stains under the chemical fume hood. One of the reagents he used was hydrochloric acid. At the end of each month there was usually a little bit of acid that needed to be disposed of as waste. He poured the waste acid into a glass jar and labeled the jar as “waste HCl.” He then carried the jar through the door to the room next door where there was an acid storage cabinet. That was where the contracted chemical waste vendor picked up other wastes from the lab.

Lydia was working the night shift in blood bank when she was changing the waste container on the automated type and screen analyzer. She splashed some waste into her eye when pulling the container out of the analyzer. She rubbed some water from the restroom sink in her eyes and decided not to report the incident as she was already in trouble with the supervisor for her continued absences.

I often talk to Lab Safety Professionals about using their “Safety Eyes” while performing their duties. It’s a latent ability we all have and can develop with some practice. With it, one can walk into a laboratory and quickly see safety issues and even make a swift assessment of the overall safety culture. Much of what can be seen using that super-power belongs to the lab’s physical environment- that which lies on the surface and should be visible to all. But sometimes there are deeper issues, those that may be more hidden. With practice, one might easily spot incorrect use of PPE, unlabeled chemicals or trip hazards. But how do you spot those other safety issues that can be just as dangerous- or even more so? How can your Safety Eyes ability be honed into something more powerful….like X-ray vision?

In the first scenario above, you may see nothing wrong, especially if you’ve performed that process yourself for years. One week later the EPA inspector came in for a laboratory waste audit, and they cited the lab for moving waste from the point of its generation to another area which was not designated as a Central Accumulation Area (CAA). Hazardous (chemical) waste cannot be moved to another location outside the line of sight of its generation point unless that other area is treated a CAA.

In the second scenario Lydia woke up the next day because her eye began to burn. She went to the emergency room and told her story. Because she missed the window of opportunity for proper treatment of an unknown source exposure to biohazards, she had to undergo long-term treatments which involved strong medications which have unpleasant side effects. She also had to be tested regularly for Hepatitis and HIV.

Some people you may know in the lab have been performing unsafe acts for years with little or no known consequences. Have they been doing the right thing or have they been lucky? What will it take to correct those unsafe actions? A fine? An exposure or injury? Hopefully not. Sometimes the reason unsafe acts occur is that staff is unaware of the regulations or the potential consequences. Influencing others’ safety behaviors is another more subtle super-power of the Lab Safety Professional, but it can be both important and useful.

As a safety professional, make sure you develop your basic super powers- your Influence and your Safety Eyes- but also be sure to augment what you already know how to use. Learn to use some X-ray Vision. Look more deeply for those processes and actions that may have been in place for years. It is not too late to make a change and prevent an incident that was years in the making.

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.

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