On which side of the aisle do you stand regarding the subject of change? Things change, or things never change? The only constant is change, or it’s always the same old thing? When it comes to the laboratory safety culture, there are some generally-accepted thoughts; change is difficult, change is slow, and change takes persistence and patience.
I’ve heard other things too- people hate change, or people like change as long as they get to be in charge of it. I do believe most of us like change. After all, we change our clothes, we re-arrange our furniture, we remodel a room in our home. It can be exciting, but the tables seem to turn if it’s a change that is forced upon us or that was not our decision (Think about all of the changes the pandemic forced upon us last year!). Changing your lab safety culture for the better can be difficult, but it can be done. First, however, you need to know the current culture and goings-on in your lab in order to be able to make a difference.
There are specific ways to determine the safety culture in your lab. An experienced safety professional can do it fairly quickly. For others, especially those who serve in multiple capacities (you know who you are- you’re in charge of lab safety but you’re also the lab manager, or the quality coordinator, or the POCT coordinator) – for you assessing the culture can be difficult, even with years of experience- because you have so many other things on your plate. That can hinder your ability to make quick assessments, but it will not hinder you completely from being able to make a true safety assessment.
To make an assessment you need to use three specific tools that you likely have at your disposal. These tools may come in a variety of forms.
Those who have followed my work for some time know about the tool “Safety Eyes.” This is a safety assessment tool I believe to be a “superpower” that we all have and need to develop. It is so powerful, in fact, that a developed user can make a fairly good and accurate safety assessment with a quick glance into the department. Performing a lab safety audit is also a very valuable tool that can give you much information about the department’s culture. Perform a complete audit at least annually, and follow-up on the results. Otherwise, you have wasted your time and resources.
A second important safety culture gauge is the use of a written or electronic safety culture assessment. You may be able to tell what’s going on visually and physically by the evidence of your eyes and safety audits, but this tool is a way to actually get into the heads of your staff. What do they think of the culture? What is their opinion of it? What do they think needs improvement, and how would they suggest making those changes? A safety culture assessment can be given to everyone, or it can be used for specific lab groups. Survey the lab staff, survey those responsible for safety, or survey lab leadership. You should perform a lab safety culture assessment at least annually, but it can be done more often as needed.
Lastly, you can use laboratory data that you already collect to see the current state of safety in the department. Analyzing the data you collect about the injuries, accidents and exposures in your laboratory can be very eye-opening, and if you share the data as safety education, you may be able to lower the number of these types of incidents. Look at the chemical and biological spills in the lab. Analyze how they happened and how to prevent a re-occurrence. If you’re the quality coordinator for your lab or system, you know about root cause and common cause analyses. The incidents that occur in the lab that generate a root cause investigation may not always be about lab safety, but it’s possible that investigations show safety is a key factor, and those results should be reviewed with the safety person in the lab.
There is much fact-gathering in the laboratory setting, even regarding the topic of safety. However, all of that data becomes worthless if there is no action taken with it. Audits, injury data, spill information – it can be very valuable information and it can all be used as tools to help you truly change your lab safety culture. If you use them properly, you can make a change, you can make a difference, and you might just end up on the correct side of the change aisle!
–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.