The Safety Sweet Spot

I have been through physical therapy for a few different issues in my life, and I must say (with apologies to the profession), I was never a believer. I had musculoskeletal issues that needed attending—a pinched nerve, neck pain, knee pain, etc. If you are past 40 years old and your body’s check engine light has blinked a few times, you know what I mean. Each time the series of physical therapy exercises seemed to be useless and a waste of time. They never really helped me. Recently, however, I subjected myself to a total knee replacement surgery. I knew PT would be a part of the recovery regimen, but I did not realize how important it was going to be for my overall recovery. Therapists taught me how to walk again, they taught me how to trust my body and that I could do things I did not believe possible until that next session. They caused pain (a necessary part of the journey), and they did all of these things with care and professionalism- despite my whining and sometimes less than positive attitude. For me, this is where the PT rubber hits the road. This is where the profession shines and has the successes that people talk about. I saw the real face of physical therapy, and I became a believer.

Then I began to wonder, what is that moment of shining for lab safety professionals? When do laboratorians become believers in lab safety? When does the safety rubber hit the road? What is that sweet spot that makes safety important to people?

I had a needle stick exposure early on in my career. It was before the advent of needle safety devices, and I picked up a used butterfly needle off of a bed and stuck myself in the finger. I was in a hurry, and not really paying attention. That event made me a much safer needle-handling phlebotomist- but would proper safety training have done the same? Would my risk tolerance have been different if someone had really explained the potential consequences of an exposure to me? Did the rubber hit the road for me because I had that experience? How does that get moved or changed so that safety behaviors become proactive instead?

I have hypothesized often that people will perform safely based on three motivators: knowledge about consequences, information about financial and environmental impacts, and punishment. Personal risk tolerance also plays a role, however. A technologist may be full well aware that an open specimen may splash, but they may also feel that the risk is low or that the result of a splash incident would not be severe, so they don’t use face protection. Sometimes, though, we make mistakes when deciding upon the risks, especially if we do not have sufficient education. Any open specimen is a potential exposure hazard, and all specimens should be treated as though hazardous.

In order for a lab safety program to have success, the working parts must be proactive. They must be in place to prevent injuries and exposures, and they should not be there only to figure out what to do after an event has occurred. When a program works in that proactive fashion, when staff is on board and participating, that’s when safety shines. That’s the safety sweet spot.

I’m thankful for professions that easily get it right- like physical therapy. People might not always see their value until they really need them, and that is when they shine. So maybe that’s true for lab safety – it shines when it is really needed. For lab safety professionals, then, the next step will be to get laboratorians to see that we need safety all the time.

A special thank you to Stephen, Audra, and the entire PT gang! You guys rock!

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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