In many laboratories, managing safety is rarely a full- time job. Many have to oversee the safety program while also managing day-to-day operations, and overseeing the quality or point of care programs. Some are lucky enough to be able to spend all of their time on the lab safety program. Either way, the role can include managing safety policies and procedures, performing audits, providing education and training, and consistently working to improve the overall culture.
But what happens when the lab safety officer has a job change, a promotion or is ready for retirement? What happens to all of that safety knowledge and experience? Wouldn’t a gap like that be a detriment to the lab’s safety program? Yes, and laboratories should always be preparing for such an event.
One way to get prepared for a transition of lab safety duties is to identify a potential replacement while you are still working in your role. Look for someone who has shown interest in your work or has asked good questions about safety issues. Ask them to shadow you as you perform your safety tasks. Ask them to review safety procedures that are due to be revised. Have them watch a lab safety audit and describe how it should be performed. Ask them to create and possibly present safety education for the staff.
This may seem more difficult if you are the lab manager with safety responsibilities. However, there can be a benefit to identifying someone among the staff to perform some of the safety tasks as they can eventually come off of your plate. Leaders should also always have an active succession plan, so if safety must remain under your purview, make sure it is part of your discussions with your potential leadership replacement(s).
If, as a safety leader you run a laboratory safety committee, look for potential future safety leaders in that group. There may be one or more good candidates for future lab safety leadership. You can assess their readiness by delegating projects and tasks. Again, things like creating safety education, working on policies, and performing audits are great “auditions” for a future job. You can also ask the committee to create a safety fair, or to develop a safety poster contest or other projects which help to raise safety awareness in the department.
Provide resources for potential leaders such as safety documents and regulations. Involve them in lab safety inspections. If the EPA, the local fire department, or even the wastewater authority arrives for an audit, allow those staff members to be involved in the process. Getting a taste of these typical lab safety events can help people discern whether or not they want a future in the field. Preparing the lab for an upcoming accreditation inspection is also great experience.
Another way to help someone on their path if they are interested in safety is to help them get certified. ASCP offers a Qualification in Lab Safety (QLS). Preparing for the certification will help someone learn more about specific safety topics like Bloodborne Pathogens, Chemical Hygiene, and Waste Management among others. The suggested study resources and references will remain important in the hands of a future lab safety leader.
Given the growing shortage of laboratorians, it is clear that it will become more difficult to fill job openings as the years pass. Labs cannot operate without specific people, however. Leaders are vital, bench staff are key, and safety professionals will always be necessary. Planning for succession is something that should be inherent in the department for most positions. The organizational chart should be designed with succession in mind and a staffing plan that goes beyond today. Lab Safety should always be a key piece in the lab’s overall succession process.
–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.