In the 1986 remake of the horror film “The Fly,” the character played by actress Geena Davis has a great line. When she warns another person about the extremely unsafe behaviors of the title character, she says, “Be afraid…be very afraid!” Clearly this woman in the story understands the dangers involved in hanging out with a man whose mind is slowly being dominated by a killer creature. As a lab safety professional, one of my greatest wishes is that laboratorians would understand the danger they can be in when they permit unsafe behaviors in those around them.
Coaching fellow lab workers about safer behaviors is perhaps one of the most powerful and important tools we have to improve the overall safety culture, but it is also one of the most difficult tools to use. There are a variety of reasons we don’t do well with speaking up when we notice unsafe activities. Some laboratorians are introverts, and saying something that could be perceived as forward or direct just isn’t natural for them. There are those who do not want to correct co-workers or friends since doing so might somehow damage the relationship. Others don’t say anything because doing so in the past had no noticeable results.
The damage done by not coaching others for safety is terrible, and unfortunately, it’s easy to do. Repairing this damage, on the other hand, can be a slow and difficult process. Albert Einstein said, “The world is not a dangerous place because of those who do harm, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” That means that when we see unsafe behaviors, we have a responsibility to do take action against them. Otherwise when we do nothing, we are essentially giving permission for those dangerous behaviors to go on. That will only lead to a worsening lab safety culture, and eventually there will be increasing amounts of injuries and exposures.
With the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the Unites States, the number of questions that have arisen about lab safety has climbed exponentially. I am excited about any uptick in interest in laboratory safety issues, but I wish it didn’t take a world-wide pandemic to cause it. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has offered very good lab safety instruction for the processing and testing of COVID-19 specimens (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/lab/index.html), and virus testing is being performed in more labs each day.
It is vital for laboratorians to remember this. While the coronavirus is not to be taken lightly, the patient specimens we handle every day contain biohazards that are far more dangerous to us than COVID-19. Hepatitis, HIV, select agents, and many other pathogens reside in the blood and body fluids processed and tested in laboratories across the country, and many of the illnesses these agents can cause are very hazardous to human health. I hope we remember that when the hype about this latest virus passes.
Use Standard Precautions when working in the laboratory. Wear lab coats, gloves, and face shields. When you see a co-worker who is not properly attired, offer them the PPE they need. If you see an unsafe practice like eating, drinking, or using cell phones in the department, end it quickly. That is how infections occur, and that is how they spread into the community. Remember, unsafe behaviors can have a direct affect on the safety of the entire team. The sooner we can help everyone to understand that, the better we will all be at coaching others. In the original 1958 version of “The Fly,” the title character is caught in a spider’s web. His famous (and often imitated) last words were, “Help me! Help meeeee!” The scientist practiced unsafe behaviors until it was too late to turn back. Don’t let that be the case for anyone in your laboratory!
–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.