When we enter the laboratory, we know of the dangers that can be encountered. Our training tells us there could be microbes and other potential pathogens in the samples we are about to analyze. We also learned how to protect ourselves; how our behavior while in the lab has consequences. We even know how to dress properly and what engineering controls we have at our disposal to keep us safe. We put on our personal protective equipment (PPE) before we start to work and remove it before leaving the lab. For some, these behaviors are automatic, actions that are done almost without even thinking. But is this the same for all who enter the lab? Do visitors who comes into the department know what they are really walking into or how to keep themselves safe in an environment that may be foreign to them? One common question asked by lab staff regarding visitors is “do they have to adhere to the lab safety policies and if so, why?”.
On a recent safety audit, I visited a lab that happened to be getting a new chemistry analyzer installed. I noticed the vendor team, which consisted of 5 individuals, were not wearing any PPE. There were backpacks, open water bottles, and cell phones sitting on the counters and floors. The new instrument was not hidden in a back corner of the lab far away from the daily work. It was close to the area where the lab process, spins, and runs patient samples. Members of the vendor team were lying on the floor and crawling around. How does that scene make you feel?
Vendors and service representatives are regular visitors in your lab. A laboratory can have a representative on site a dozen times before you even begin to use that piece of equipment. Once it is installed, you can bet you will see them multiple times for preventative maintenance and service calls. How does your lab welcome these guests? Do you let them in and have them get right to work? If they are there to repair an analyzer you are likely eager to have them get started, but do you ask them to wear a lab coat? Did they bring one of their own that was kept in their backpack? If so, do you think that coat is clean or was it used in a different lab, packed up, and brought to your lab? Vendor compliance is a safety issue for many labs because these visitors are not lab employees, yet they are in your department and may be putting themselves and your team at risk. Often vendors are seen with drinks in labs, using cell phones or touching instruments without gloves – behaviors lab folk are told not to follow. So why is it tolerated? It shouldn’t be, and you have the right to speak up and ask them to adhere to your lab policies.
What about other potential laboratory visitors? Do pathologists come in to look at a patient slide in Hematology? Do they just sit down at your bench and look at the slide without gloves or a lab coat? Is lab staff allowed to scan a smear without PPE? Probably not, and no one else should be allowed too either. The microscope has most likely been touched with dirty gloves, and no one else should touch the same scope without gloves. Even lab doorknobs are a consideration. Staff should wash hands before leaving the department. That means no one should use contaminated gloves to open the door.
Speaking up about these safety issues to lab visitors can feel uncomfortable. A conversation with a physician about safe practices in the lab can be daunting, but the cost of not speaking up can be high. Take the opportunity to show you care about visitors and want to keep them protected. Sometimes you know who is coming to the lab, and you feel confident they have been trained and will use the best safety practices. At other times, though, those guests may be unexpected and lacking in safety knowledge. Make sure to treat them with respect, give them the safety training and tools they need so they can leave both happy and healthy.
-Jason P. Nagy, PhD, MLS(ASCP)CM is a Lab Safety Coordinator for Sentara Healthcare, a hospital system with laboratories throughout Virginia and North Carolina. He is an experienced Technical Specialist with a background in biotechnology, molecular biology, clinical labs, and most recently, a focus in laboratory safety.