The Laboratory Safety Challenge

In 2014 there was an internet challenge which exploded in popularity. It was the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge in which people would dump cold water on their heads and post the video on social media. The person getting the ice water dumped on them would challenge others to post a video of their dousing and they would in turn donate to the cause of finding a cure for ALS, a progressive neurodegenerative disease. The challenge became a world-wide sensation and raised $115 million for ALS research. But, like many good things, the challenge had a dark side. Many people were injured while attempting the challenge, and at least two deaths were at least indirectly associated with it.

Another challenge has come to social media lately, and this one involves a technical skill in the laboratory. It, too, has a dark side. The blood smear challenge is the latest rage for lab techs who enjoy posting videos on Facebook, Instagram, and other social media platforms. Lab techs show off their skill by making the perfect blood smear. At first it was about who could make a smear with the most perfect beautiful, feathered edge. Then the challenge evolved into people making smears while holding the top slide with one finger or even a pencil. There are those who were quite proud to show off their skill and work.

When watching videos of people in various labs performing this challenge, I cannot help but cringe. Several of these lab techs are not wearing lab coats. Many are not wearing gloves, and I have not seen any perform the challenge while using face protection or goggles. Ignoring the safety regulations about using basic personal protective equipment is apparently the norm. These people post this online without a second thought to a public display of working in the lab without PPE. It speaks volumes about the safety culture in those laboratories, and what it says is not favorable.

The next, less obvious safety issue with the videos is that they are created using cell phones or other personal electronic devices in the laboratory. People are handling devices sometimes with gloves, sometimes without, or they are setting them on lab counters which are likely contaminated. The use of cell phones and other personal electronic devices is a dangerous infection control issue, but it is unfortunately all too common. Even before this latest challenge, lab staff all over the country pose for pictures for social media posts that are taken by cell phones. Despite the fact that known and reported infections have occurred in labs from cell phones (and other items brought home from work), techs continue to use them.  

Other issues with the blood smear challenge may be less obvious. Unless these smears are being used, valuable lab supplies are being wasted. Slides and blood-dispenser cap piercing devices cost money, and many lab supplies manufacturers have run into supply shortages this year because of the pandemic. To have a lab waste money or run into shortages for the sake of this challenge might seem foolhardy to some.

Another safety issue with the challenge is the blatant act of playing around with human, potentially infectious blood to make the smears. Staff use engineering controls, work practice controls and PPE to separate people from the hazards in the laboratory. To place oneself at risk unnecessarily, especially during the COVID-19 pandemic, borders on reckless.

When the COVID-19 pandemic began affecting labs over a year ago, many laboratorians became concerned for their own personal safety. They were unsure about how they might catch this virus and what effects it might for them and their family. These were valid concerns, and some still have fears today. In conversations with lab staff over the past months I reminded them that they work with bloodborne pathogens every day, and many are as potentially dangerous (or more) than the COVID-19 virus. If Standard Precautions are used on the job, workers will be safe from infections from COVID-19 and other pathogens. The same is true today. Laboratorians may be less worried about the coronavirus, but the risk of infection in labs from this and other pathogens is as real as ever. Using engineering controls, PPE, and safe work practices is the only way to ensure lab staff can go home without bringing something dangerous to our families.

Challenges can be fun. I participated in the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge. I came out unscathed, but I was likely just lucky, not safe. The same is true for those posting pictures and videos online from inside laboratories. You might have been working that way for years and nothing has happened. Again, that is just luck, and it will run out. Make sure you and your staff are doing what is right, and what is safe. The real challenge is how to get laboratorians in all labs to work safely and follow basic safety regulations. Can your lab meet that challenge?

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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