Lab Safety Whiplash

The world seemed like a brighter place just a few short weeks ago. The pandemic seemed to be nearing an end, and life was returning to normal. In laboratories, the COVID-19 testing volumes decreased, wearing surgical masks all day long at work was no longer the norm, and the workday had that old feeling of familiarity again. Then, suddenly, it all came roaring back. The COVID-19 Delta Variant, loading its victims with over 1000 times more viral particles than the original could, came to visit. Now masking and social distancing are back with a vengeance, and everyone holds their collective breath as we wait to see what other cancellations and restrictions will come our way. It is almost worse this time because we know what the future will bring, and it isn’t pretty.

So how do we deal with it in the laboratory? How do we manage our lab safety program as our staff deals with this physical and mental whiplash? Many labs already saw the fatigue workers exhibited in the past 18 months. People stopped distancing from each other, they became less diligent about hand hygiene in the department, and PPE use became a bigger compliance issue than it had been when the pandemic began.

Fortunately, this is not a new challenge for lab safety professionals. Even without a pandemic, maintaining an awareness for the importance of lab safety has been a consistent need. Those who have been in the field for years and have never had a chemical exposure or a needle stick become complacent about the hazards where they work. Formaldehyde is treated like it was water, and contaminated blood tubes are handled with no gloves. This “disease” spreads also, when new employees observe these poor safety behaviors and emulate them. A poor safety culture does not have to become a pandemic, however, there is a cure, even in times such as these.

First, determine where your lab safety culture lies on the spectrum- is it very broken, or does it just need a little boost? Make an assessment of the overall culture using surveys or by talking to lab staff and leadership directly. Review your findings with the staff so that they are clear about why you are tackling the issues. That act alone raises awareness in the department. If possible, obtain a commitment from staff to improve the overall safety culture. Find safety champions who will work with you on the on-going project. Be sure safety is being discussed daily and is placed in front of the staff. Use huddles, e-mails and safety boards to promote a positive culture.

Unsafe behaviors in the laboratory can easily have consequences that may affect others in the department. Spills and exposures are just some incidents that may occur. Messy lab areas can create trips or falls, and improper storage of chemicals or hazardous wastes can be dangerous as well. Perhaps laboratory staff don’t think enough about the dangerous consequences because there isn’t enough training about them. Perhaps they don’t think about the potential consequences to others because they haven’t been told about the possible physical, environmental, or financial consequences. Maintaining awareness of these issues is always key.

The COVID-19 pandemic and its apparent rebound has made for some very long months for employees in healthcare, and the struggles do not appear to be ending anytime soon. As safety leaders, it is important for us to do what we can to help staff build resilience against the whiplash and to reinvigorate them to continue with good safety practices. We must remind them that despite all of the changes in safety guidelines in the recent past that the basics – PPE use, using engineering controls and work practice controls- are there to help us get safely through the day so that we can still go home healthy and to be able to enjoy our lives so that we can see the end of these unusual times.

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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