During a recent trip to South Dakota, I was able to visit Badlands National Park. I am not a hiker or a camper, so I was not sure I would enjoy the park very much, but it turned out to be the highlight of our vacation. The vastness of the landscape and the unusual beauty of the rock formations cannot be captured in pictures. It is truly something that should be see in person at least once in a lifetime. While walking the trails of the park, it looked and felt like walking in an alien world. It looks strange, and there are hidden dangers- rattlesnakes, potential high heat, and crumbly walkways with sudden drop-offs.
The experience reminded me of how the laboratory must seem to visitors or workers who need to come into the department to perform various duties. The laboratory must seem like a foreign world, and indeed, there are many hidden dangers within. If I had walked blindly into Badlands National Park and not read the warning signs, would I have been bitten by a snake or could I have walked off a cliff? Of course. Do the signs in your lab adequately warn visitors of the dangers? Do visitors pay attention?
The lab staff reported a plugged floor drain under the hematology analyzer, so the facilities plumber arrived to repair it. He asked the staff if the analyzer was running, and because they were not processing any samples, they said it was not. When the plumber bent down to look at the drain, the analyzer cycled waste through the drain line which quickly splashed into the eyes and mouth of the plumber.
Warning signs are required in many labs for many reasons, but they are not sufficient for protection from the hazards in the department. Those who enter the “badlands” of the lab need to be told about the dangers, and they need as much information as possible. If someone is coming in to work on equipment, offer proper personal protective equipment. If someone will be on the floor of a biohazard lab, make sure a lab coat and gloves are in use, and lay a pad on the floor if possible. Make sure people understand proper terminology. An analyzer may not be actively running samples, but it is still “on,” and there are still potential hazards present.
It should not be assumed that people who come to work in the lab department will have general knowledge of the laboratory or of lab safety practices. It is a good practice to use a safety training checklist for vendors or others who enter the department and to go over that checklist at least annually. Couriers can be harmed by pathogens, chemicals, or dry ice. Phlebotomists who are expected to process samples should be trained in centrifuge operations, spill clean up and more. Environmental service workers and biomedical engineering staff need to understand the chemical and biohazards in the department.
Instrument service representatives have training, but not typically much of that training is focused on lab safety. Some representatives keep a reusable lab coat with them, and wear it from lab to lab, washing it at home when visibly dirty. There are some OSHA violations in those behaviors. PPE that is used on a lab cannot be removed from that lab (except for professional laundering). Lab coats used in a laboratory cannot be laundered at home. These are unsafe (and illegal) practices, but until someone notifies the representatives about them, the behaviors will continue.
When someone works in the lab “badlands” every day, it is easy to become complacent about the hazards within, or they may be well-trained and no longer consciously think about the tools they use to mitigate those hazards. That is not true for someone who may enter, someone who does not have the same background, experience, and training. Laboratorians are responsible for their safety as well, and educating those visitors about the potential dangers can keep them safe so they can go into more familiar climates with their health fully intact.
–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.