Unwritten Safety Rules Every Lab Professional Should Know

Many years ago a woman purchased a cup of coffee in a restaurant drive-through. Not having a cup holder available in her car, she placed the cup between her legs to hold the coffee while she reached for money to pay for it. She burned her legs, sued the restaurant, and actually won her court case. Now such restaurants are required to warn customers with signs stating the obvious; “coffee served hot.” Before this regulation came to be, however, many people were aware of the possible danger of placing a hot cup near their skin. Does having a posted sign make customers safer? What about the lab environment? There isn’t an explicit safety regulation written for every action that could create an unsafe situation. So what are a few of the hidden and maybe no-so-obvious things might your staff need to know in order to keep safe?

You can’t chew gum in the laboratory. It’s true, but sadly, it’s not written down anywhere as a regulation. OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogen standard says that “eating, drinking, smoking, applying cosmetics or lip balm, and handling contact lenses are prohibited (in the lab).” It says nothing abut gum, throat lozenges, hard candy, or even chewing tobacco. The unwritten rule is that OSHA is trying to prevent hand-to-face contact while working in an area where infections can be acquired easily this way. There are multiple routes of entry via mucous membranes- a major source of pathogen exposure- your mouth, nose, and eyes. Laboratorians should always keep their hands away from their face when working in the department. These activities are just another opportunity for hand- to-mouth contact. While you might be able to show the safety officer you are putting these things in your mouth outside of the lab, you would not be able to prove that to an inspector, and they will rightly cite you for it. If you need help enforcing this, be on the lookout- by the end of the year there will most likely be a regulatory body that addresses gum chewing directly.

How long should staff wear PPE? During the COVID-19 pandemic, many have asked about the effectiveness of various PPE and have looked for written guidance discussing how long it should be worn. In general, studies show that gloves lose barrier effectiveness in about two hours. Wear them that long if they are not visibly soiled while in use in the lab. Lab coats- disposable or reusable- can be worn for one week in the general lab setting unless something is spilled on them. Once a new coat is worn, the outside is considered contaminated, but that does not mean it cannot be re-used. It is wasteful to change coats every day unless there is a reason to do that (i.e. in a specialty lab where cross-contamination will be an issue). Face shields worn by staff can be reused as well, and they can be cleaned with alcohol-based products for disinfection. Rarely should a wearable face shield or goggles be used only once before disposal.

Mesh shoes are not allowed to be worn by lab personnel. Again, other than in CLSI guidelines, it will be difficult to find that written clearly in lab safety regulations. Laboratory footwear should “be comfortable and cover the entire foot, including the instep and the heel. Because canvas shoes will absorb chemicals or infectious fluids, they are not recommended. Leather or a synthetic, fluid-impermeable material is suggested. OSHA’s PPE standard does insist that employers take measures to protect the feet of employees. In the lab and specimen collection setting, that means footwear needs to protect from biohazard materials, chemicals, and even sharps. Mesh or canvas shoes do not fit the bill, and neither do clog-style shoes (even if they have a heel strap). If you need to, set your lab’s footwear policy through the dress code or maybe the Chemical Hygiene Plan. If staff tells you they can’t find this type of footwear, tell them to look harder. All across this country, hundreds of laboratory employees are wearing the appropriate shoes, and they are available at several different stores.

Often, because these safety rules are “unwritten,” staff will challenge you on them. It can be difficult to try to enforce these important safety measures if you can’t properly educate the staff about why they exist. Be sure to know your regulatory resources, and don’t be afraid to dig deeply into the references to find the answers you seek. Lab leaders can write their own policy, and it can go above and beyond what the regulations state if needed. The safety standard may not be clear and direct, but it these are still important measures to take. Just like that lady may have needed a sign to prevent her from putting hot coffee in her lap, your staff needs clear safety guidance to keep them safe from a lab-acquired injury or exposure. Provide the tools they need to remain happy and healthy members of your lab team.

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.

Laboratory Safety and COVID-19: References You Need to Know

Three months ago, life in the laboratories in these United States carried on as usual, and no one could probably have predicted where we stand today. The COVID-19 pandemic has changed the way laboratorians work everywhere. Some staff have had hours cut because of decreased workloads, other labs worked around the clock to bring new testing on board, and others dealt with staffing shortages due to illness. It has been a wild ride, and through it all, a great many safety issues have arisen. Common lab practices are now viewed through a new lens- is it acceptable to bring hematology slides for review into a clean pathologist’s office? Can we wear surgical masks worn in the lab into the break room? There are many good questions, but some of the answers can be found using references offered from reliable sources. Not everything you read online can be believed, but here are some references that may be necessary and that provide important information.

The pandemic has created a world-wide shortage of PPE, and some have wondered what can be done as resources diminish. The CDC has some good information about calculating how long PPE can be used and how long it can last. There are good guidelines about re-use and extended use of PPE.

PPE Burn Rate Calculator:

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/ppe-strategy/burn-calculator.html

Strategies to Optimize the Supply of PPE and Equipment:

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/hcp/ppe-strategy/index.html

There are specific references regarding respirators and how they should be used.

Respiratory Protection During Outbreaks: Respirators versus Surgical Masks

Understanding the Use of Imported Non-NIOSH-Approved Respirators

Proper N95 Respirator Use for Respiratory Protection Preparedness

Some laboratory disinfectants have become more difficult to purchase. The gold standard for disinfection remains a 10% bleach solution, but there are many other options that can be used as well.

Disinfectants for Use Against SARS-CoV-2 (EPA List N):

https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-n-disinfectants-use-against-sars-cov-2

EPA’s Registered Antimicrobial Products Effective Against Human HIV-1 and Hepatitis B Virus:

https://www.epa.gov/pesticide-registration/list-d-epas-registered-antimicrobial-products-effective-against-human-hiv-1

The CDC also offers laboratories a set of COVID-19 guidelines for performing testing, biosafety issues, waste management, and protection against aerosols. These guidelines are thorough, and they can be very helpful should safety challenges arise.

Interim Laboratory Biosafety Guidelines for Handling and Processing Specimens Associated with Coronavirus Disease 2019 (COVID-19):

https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-nCoV/lab/lab-biosafety-guidelines.html

Many of these references are updated regularly, so be sure you go to go to the source when making safety policy about COVID-19 tasks.

Laboratorians are now literally on the front lines during this novel coronavirus pandemic. While many public and commercial services have been scaled back, restaurants are closing, and many people are staying or working at home, lab staff are doing their level best to keep coming to work despite the extremely unusual circumstances and hardships.

I am here to serve as well. If you have questions about how to safely navigate this national (and global) emergency while working in the lab, ask me (info@danthelabsafetyman.com). I will do my best to provide any lab safety resources you may need. Make sure the decisions you make during these days are safe, sound, and based on the most recent resources available to you.

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.

COVID-19 Laboratory Safety: The Wrong Conclusion?

In the classic Barry Manilow song, Copa Cabana, the singer admonishes his audience at the end not to fall in love. We are told to avoid love because some guy named Rico might exterminate our loved one and we will end up a drunken barfly like Lola in did in the song. It’s a pretty funny conclusion when you think about it. If you were the victim in the story though, you might draw the same conclusion, however flawed. As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, laboratorians are seeing people draw incorrect conclusions as well, and some of those assumptions are leading to some potentially unsafe practices in some laboratories.

It’s easy to understand and even to forgive any misconceptions. The COVID-19 pandemic is unprecedented in our lifetime. The virus is new, it has spread very quickly, and there are unknowns about its make-up and mode of transmission. The situation has changed rapidly, and agencies like the CDC have had to change safety recommendations almost daily at times. Couple that with a media that by its nature uses fear and drama to ensure continued viewership, and people everywhere are going to make some fast decisions, and not all of them will be good.

One example of a change in guidance came from the CDC. At first, they were very careful not to give out any more information for lab safety than what was posted on their COVID-19 web page. When asked if typical lab specimens (blood and urine) from COVID-19 patients could be transported via a pneumatic tube system, they said that all specimens should be hand-carried to the lab. Since many patients were asymptomatic and many more could not be tested because of kit shortages, that would basically mean that all specimens in all hospitals would be carried to the lab. Before hospitals could react or even find the information, the CDC changed its recommendations. Only respiratory specimens from these patients should be carried directly to the lab (https://www.cdc.gov/csels/dls/locs/2020/transport_recommendations_for_covid-19_specimens.html), blood and urine can safely be transported. Given what is known about viruses and other pathogens in blood, walking all specimens to the lab doesn’t sound like a necessary guideline, does it? But this judgement in guidance simply illustrates what can happen when a situation changes rapidly.

With the push for the need for COVID-19 testing, news has come out about specimen collection kits and new and faster testing platforms. Not everything that has been reported has been factual. Every night we see numbers of cases and mortality rates reported in the media. Mathematically, one cannot determine a mortality rate without knowing the total number of patients’ cases. If there aren’t enough test swabs and reagents, and if we don’t test those who are asymptomatic (estimated to be about 25% of cases), how can we calculate any kind of accurate rate? Some laboratories have been pushed to bring on testing, and with little experience with brand new instruments, there has been work performed in some locations without adequate PPE or other safety measures. Look at your testing platform. Review the steps to see if there are any potential aerosol-creating steps. Are the correct PPE or engineering controls in place? Now more than ever it is vital to adhere to lab safety regulations while paying attention to the latest COVID-19 safety guidance. If you feel there is work being performed without adequate safety protection, escalate the situation as soon as possible. There will be no one to run teste if all of the laboratory staff becomes sick.

In many locations, hospitals have responded to the shortage of N95 respirators and surgical masks by developing methods to decontaminate and reuse them. While that is an innovative idea, make sure the system in place has physical and biological checks in place to ensure the reprocessing is effective. Spot test disinfected N95 respirators by performing fit-testing with them as batches are reprocessed. Use a biological indicator to ensure the COVID-19 virus particles have been eradicated. Do not reprocess N95 respirators used for protection against tuberculosis unless it is certain the disinfection process is known to effectively destroy TB bacteria.

Sometimes we come to the wrong conclusion, and sometimes mistakes are made, even in the world of science. But we are human, and we have to come to terms with that or we might end up alone in a disco like the aforementioned Lola. That’s why it’s important that we stop for a moment and pause, especially when an event occurs rapidly and transforms the very environment where we work. Take the time to ensure safety measures are in place for everyone involved. If something doesn’t make sense, question it. Examine it, and work with your staff as a team to make sure we can do what we are called to do- to safely perform lab work in order to provide quality results for the patients we serve.

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.

COVID-19 Q&A: Laboratory Safety

The evolving COVID-19 pandemic has changed the world already- the way we educate, the way we conduct business, and way we socialize (or don’t). In the lab setting, there are many practices and procedures that are now being questioned. Sometimes the answer changes quickly, sometimes there is national guidance to assist with a particular issue, and sometimes your own facility or organization makes the decisions for you. As a lab safety consultant, I have received many lab safety questions about handling certain situations in these times, and I want to share some of those because others may be wondering the same thing.

Q: Should nurses or other staff come into the laboratory wearing surgical masks, even if they are taking care of COVID-19 patients?

A: Yes, it is acceptable and safe for nurses and other staff to enter the lab wearing surgical masks (unless a company policy prohibits it). Remember, if someone else wears a surgical mask, that protects you, NOT them. Even if the employee is taking care of a COVID-19 patient, science tells us that virus particles are not falling off their mask. It is generally safe for people to enter the department wearing a surgical mask.

Q: Should nurses or other staff come into the department wearing gloves?

A: No, it is generally not acceptable for others to enter (or exit) the lab wearing gloves. Door handles should be considered clean. If specimens are being delivered, the outside of the bag/container being carried is considered clean (even if a COVID-19 specimen is inside). Post signage to remind non-lab staff to remove gloves, and notify people immediately if you see them using gloves to enter or exit the lab.

Q: My lab co-worker seems to be sick. Can I tell them to go home or self-quarantine?

A: No. As an employee you do not have the right to approach a co-worker or dictate to them how to proceed. If you have concerns, escalate them to the manager. If you’re the manager, contact your employee health department. That is the department that can best determine who needs to be sent home for isolation. Remember, there are many other reasons people cough, sneeze, or have a runny nose. For instance, allergy season is in full swing. Harassing a co-worker about their health would be considered a violation of Human Resources policy.

Q: How does laboratory staff maintain an appropriate social distance from each other while working?

A: The answer to this really depends on your lab set-up and processes. Is it possible for staff in smaller labs to change work patterns in order to better maintain a distance from co-workers? Try a different receiving location so that those from outside the department can drop off specimens from a distance, like placing a cart near the lab door. Some facilities require masking of all staff, and if that is the case, then social distancing while at work may not be an issue. Be sure to limit staff in break rooms as well, and make sure areas are disinfected regularly.

Q: Should autopsies be performed during this pandemic?

A: Some pathologists have suspended autopsies at this time. While it is possible to perform autopsies on COVID-19 patients safely using the appropriate PPE, many deem the use of such PPE to be unnecessary when so many others need it.

Q: Can PPE be disinfected and re-used safely?

A: Some locations have moved to reprocessing N95 respirators, surgical masks and isolation gowns. Make sure there are appropriate quality and safety checks being performed on this equipment before it is re-used. While some methods can disinfect items used for COVID-19 patients (i.e. UV light treatment, hydrogen peroxide mist, etc.), they have not been approved for the disinfection of tuberculosis. Therefore, if PPE has been used to protect staff from TB, it should not be reprocessed with the other PPE used for COVID-19 patients.

Q: Histology and cytology slides from fresh (unfixed) samples are made in the lab space and moved to offices for reading. Can these slides from potential COVID-19 patients be safely read in clean office areas?

A: This is a valid question at all times, not just during this pandemic, and the answer depends on the process used for making the slides. It is known that xylenes or solutions containing 60% ethanol or more easily inactivate COVID-19 and other pathogens. Slides made with these chemicals can safely be transferred to office areas for reading. Fresh tissue/sample slides using other methods (i.e. methanol fixation) should be read in the lab space only. Check your reagents in your slide stains to see if they eradicate pathogens. If not, check to see if it is possible to fix the slides in stronger ethanol solutions before staining.

These are just some of the many questions people are asking. There are references which can help to provide some of the answers (CDC.gov, WHO.int, OSHA.gov, etc.), but if you need more lab safety information, please feel free to send me questions at info@danthelabsafetyman.com. I will provide the most current safety guidance for your issue. This is a rapidly-changing situation, and information comes from many sources, Make sure you do your best to validate what you hear, and continue to use Standard Precautions and good behaviors to keep you and your laboratory staff safe from COVID-19 and other harmful pathogens.

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.

Be Safe…Be Very Safe

In the 1986 remake of the horror film “The Fly,” the character played by actress Geena Davis has a great line. When she warns another person about the extremely unsafe behaviors of the title character, she says, “Be afraid…be very afraid!” Clearly this woman in the story understands the dangers involved in hanging out with a man whose mind is slowly being dominated by a killer creature. As a lab safety professional, one of my greatest wishes is that laboratorians would understand the danger they can be in when they permit unsafe behaviors in those around them.

Coaching fellow lab workers about safer behaviors is perhaps one of the most powerful and important tools we have to improve the overall safety culture, but it is also one of the most difficult tools to use. There are a variety of reasons we don’t do well with speaking up when we notice unsafe activities. Some laboratorians are introverts, and saying something that could be perceived as forward or direct just isn’t natural for them. There are those who do not want to correct co-workers or friends since doing so might somehow damage the relationship. Others don’t say anything because doing so in the past had no noticeable results.

The damage done by not coaching others for safety is terrible, and unfortunately, it’s easy to do. Repairing this damage, on the other hand, can be a slow and difficult process. Albert Einstein said, “The world is not a dangerous place because of those who do harm, but because of those who look on and do nothing.” That means that when we see unsafe behaviors, we have a responsibility to do take action against them. Otherwise when we do nothing, we are essentially giving permission for those dangerous behaviors to go on. That will only lead to a worsening lab safety culture, and eventually there will be increasing amounts of injuries and exposures.

With the rapid spread of COVID-19 in the Unites States, the number of questions that have arisen about lab safety has climbed exponentially. I am excited about any uptick in interest in laboratory safety issues, but I wish it didn’t take a world-wide pandemic to cause it. The Centers for Disease Control (CDC) has offered very good lab safety instruction for the processing and testing of COVID-19 specimens          (https://www.cdc.gov/coronavirus/2019-ncov/lab/index.html), and virus testing is being performed in more labs each day.

It is vital for laboratorians to remember this. While the coronavirus is not to be taken lightly, the patient specimens we handle every day contain biohazards that are far more dangerous to us than COVID-19. Hepatitis, HIV, select agents, and many other pathogens reside in the blood and body fluids processed and tested in laboratories across the country, and many of the illnesses these agents can cause are very hazardous to human health. I hope we remember that when the hype about this latest virus passes.

Use Standard Precautions when working in the laboratory. Wear lab coats, gloves, and face shields. When you see a co-worker who is not properly attired, offer them the PPE they need. If you see an unsafe practice like eating, drinking, or using cell phones in the department, end it quickly. That is how infections occur, and that is how they spread into the community. Remember, unsafe behaviors can have a direct affect on the safety of the entire team. The sooner we can help everyone to understand that, the better we will all be at coaching others. In the original 1958 version of “The Fly,” the title character is caught in a spider’s web. His famous (and often imitated) last words were, “Help me! Help meeeee!” The scientist practiced unsafe behaviors until it was too late to turn back. Don’t let that be the case for anyone in your laboratory!

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.

Respiratory Protection in the Days of the Novel Coronavirus

In the peak of the flu season we might see many people wearing masks in physician offices and hospitals. In the news today, as the 2019 Novel Coronavirus (SARS-CoV-2) continues to spread, we see many images of people wearing different types of respirators, some are N95 respirators and others are surgical masks. Not all experts agree on the efficacy of these pieces of personal protective equipment in the face of viruses, but if you’re going to use them, it is important to know how, when and why.

OSHA’s Respiratory Protection standard (1910.134) provides information about requirements for staff who may potentially be exposed to airborne pathogens. These requirements include specific instructions for choosing the proper respirator, for providing fit-testing, and for user training. The College of American Pathologists (CAP) also expects labs to determine the risk of airborne pathogen exposure for each employee, and they require labs to have a plan which outlines engineering and work practice controls that reduce exposure potential.

The purpose of a respirator is to protect the employee from contaminated or oxygen-deficient air. Therefore, two classes of respirators are common; air-purifying respirators which use filters to remove contaminants from the air you breathe, and atmosphere-supplying respirators which provide clean air from an uncontaminated source. These types of respirators can also be classified further as tight-fitting or loose-fitting.  Tight-fitting respirators need a tight seal between the respirator and the face and/or neck of the user in order to work properly. For now, let’s focus on the air-purifying respirators which are in high demand these days as a potential 2019-nCoV pandemic looms.

In the laboratory, N95 respirators are probably the most commonly-used respirators, often used for protection against tuberculosis and other airborne pathogens. These respirators filter out 95% of airborne pathogens that are 0.3 microns or larger. While the exact size of the 2019-nCoV is not yet known, most coronaviruses are slightly larger than 0.1 microns. Does that mean a N95 respirator (recommended by the CDC) will not offer protection from the coronavirus? Not necessarily.

According to biosafety expert Sean Kaufman (www.saferbehaviors.com), the filter in the N95 respirator works three ways- through interception, impaction, and diffusion. Interception collects larger particles which are blocked by mask fibers, and impaction collects larger particles which have too much inertia to be moved around the filter fibers. Diffusion occurs as smaller particles are bombarded with larger air molecules and are pushed against filter fibers. Most of the bacteria or virus particles are removed from the airstream making the respirator quite useful and protective (HEPA filters on a Biological Safety Cabinet work in much the same way).

Employees who may need to wear a tight-fitting respirator as part of their job are required to have fit-testing every year. This is required by OSHA, and contracted employees (such as pathologists) should be fit-tested as well. Employees who may need such respirators would be those who work in microbiology labs, cytology techs who participate in patient procedures, and others. Labs should perform a risk assessment for each job category to determine the type and level of potential harmful airborne exposure.

Procedure masks, such as those handed out when people suspect they have the flu, are not technically considered respirators. Often, the person who is sick will wear these masks in order to prevent the spread of droplets when coughing or sneezing. They can protect others in the area, but they do not protect the user from harmful airborne pathogens or vapors.

Can these surgical masks be useful for the healthy public when a coronavirus is present? Sean Kaufman says “yes. If you wear a surgical mask in a potentially contaminated environment (on a commuter bus, for example),” Kaufman says, “it can keep you from touching your nose or mouth- two major routes of entry for viruses. Behaviorally speaking, these masks do offer some protection.”

Knowing when and why you use a respirator is vital, but knowing how to use it is important as well. Tight-fitting respirators should never be used without fit-testing to make sure the correct size is being used. Otherwise, the protection offered will be limited. Make sure your staff is properly trained and protected to work in environments where the air is not safe to breathe, and teach others about the usefulness of respirators when the flu and other viruses are lurking!

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.

By the Numbers: Injuries and Exposures in the Lab

Finding information about the number of Laboratory Acquired Infections (LAIs) and other laboratory injuries in the United States is difficult. Many events are not reported, and of those that are reported at the facility level, only some are required to be reported to national agencies. A report by the CDC cites four studies that collectively identified 4,079 LAIs resulting in 168 deaths occurring between 1930 and 1978. Again, those are just the reported occurrences, and the data says nothing about other injuries in the lab such as slips, trips, and falls, or lacerations.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides benchmark injury and exposure data for clinical laboratories, but this information too, is limited to that which is reported. That said, the information may still be of value—it can be used to compare your lab’s reportable injury data to labs across the nation. This can provide one form of assessing your overall lab safety.

The BLS provides annual clinical lab workplace injury data in the form of a rate. That rate is obtained via a calculation:

(Number of injuries and illnesses X 200,000) / Employee hours worked = Incidence rate

Incidence rates can be used to show a relative level of injuries and illnesses among different industries and within the same industry. Because a common base and a specific period of time are involved, these rates can help determine both problem areas and progress in preventing work-related injuries and illnesses. In this equation, the number of injuries and illnesses comes from your log of work-related incidents reported on your department’s OSHA 300 log. The worked hours from your lab should not include any non-work time (even if it is paid) such as vacation, sick leave, or holidays. You can estimate the worked hours on the basis of scheduled hours or eight hours per workday. The 200,000 is a constant—it represents the equivalent of 100 employees working 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, and provides the standard base for the incidence rates.

It takes time for national annual injury and illness rates to be calculated, so the most recent data from the BLS today is from the year 2018. Back in 2014 the rate for clinical labs was 3.4, and in 2015 it went down to 3.3. In fact, the BLS lab data shows a steady decline in reported incidents over the past twelve years. The most recent rate is 3.1. That’s good news that could mean that lab safety awareness is improving across the country.

How does your laboratory data compare to national numbers? It’s a good idea to use the calculation so that you can see how your lab is doing. If your injury, exposure and illness numbers are on the rise, it’s time to take action. Look for the causes of the incidents and implement methods of prevention. If you see a pattern of the same type of incidents, you may need to execute a safety stand-down around that specific process.

Now that you can compare your reportable data to a benchmark, what about the non-reportable events in your lab? They should get attention as well. Events like closing a finger in a drawer or cutting a finger on a clean microtome blade should always be reported to lab management and the occupational health department, but they may not be required to be reported elsewhere. They still need the same follow-up in the lab, however, and as a lab safety professional, you should be an integral part of the process to engender safety success in the lab.

While there is no national data to compare to for all types of lab injuries and exposures, it is still helpful to collect the information and calculate your lab’s rate. You can keep track of that overall rate and look for trends and make improvements on all incidents in the laboratory. Be sure to promote a culture of transparency and non-punitive reporting so that all lab accidents can be documented.

Knowing how many LAIs and other injuries in laboratories are occurring across the nation is no easy task. The best place to begin is within your own lab. Collect the data and become more familiar with this indicator that can guide you to the right path to improved employee safety in the lab.

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.

From Safety Eyes to X-Ray Vision

In the Immunohistochemical stain lab, Rory made up his special stains under the chemical fume hood. One of the reagents he used was hydrochloric acid. At the end of each month there was usually a little bit of acid that needed to be disposed of as waste. He poured the waste acid into a glass jar and labeled the jar as “waste HCl.” He then carried the jar through the door to the room next door where there was an acid storage cabinet. That was where the contracted chemical waste vendor picked up other wastes from the lab.

Lydia was working the night shift in blood bank when she was changing the waste container on the automated type and screen analyzer. She splashed some waste into her eye when pulling the container out of the analyzer. She rubbed some water from the restroom sink in her eyes and decided not to report the incident as she was already in trouble with the supervisor for her continued absences.

I often talk to Lab Safety Professionals about using their “Safety Eyes” while performing their duties. It’s a latent ability we all have and can develop with some practice. With it, one can walk into a laboratory and quickly see safety issues and even make a swift assessment of the overall safety culture. Much of what can be seen using that super-power belongs to the lab’s physical environment- that which lies on the surface and should be visible to all. But sometimes there are deeper issues, those that may be more hidden. With practice, one might easily spot incorrect use of PPE, unlabeled chemicals or trip hazards. But how do you spot those other safety issues that can be just as dangerous- or even more so? How can your Safety Eyes ability be honed into something more powerful….like X-ray vision?

In the first scenario above, you may see nothing wrong, especially if you’ve performed that process yourself for years. One week later the EPA inspector came in for a laboratory waste audit, and they cited the lab for moving waste from the point of its generation to another area which was not designated as a Central Accumulation Area (CAA). Hazardous (chemical) waste cannot be moved to another location outside the line of sight of its generation point unless that other area is treated a CAA.

In the second scenario Lydia woke up the next day because her eye began to burn. She went to the emergency room and told her story. Because she missed the window of opportunity for proper treatment of an unknown source exposure to biohazards, she had to undergo long-term treatments which involved strong medications which have unpleasant side effects. She also had to be tested regularly for Hepatitis and HIV.

Some people you may know in the lab have been performing unsafe acts for years with little or no known consequences. Have they been doing the right thing or have they been lucky? What will it take to correct those unsafe actions? A fine? An exposure or injury? Hopefully not. Sometimes the reason unsafe acts occur is that staff is unaware of the regulations or the potential consequences. Influencing others’ safety behaviors is another more subtle super-power of the Lab Safety Professional, but it can be both important and useful.

As a safety professional, make sure you develop your basic super powers- your Influence and your Safety Eyes- but also be sure to augment what you already know how to use. Learn to use some X-ray Vision. Look more deeply for those processes and actions that may have been in place for years. It is not too late to make a change and prevent an incident that was years in the making.

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.

The Power of the Pause

The majority of laboratory injuries and exposures are preventable, and most of them occur because staff is not paying close attention to the situation. They lose their situational awareness or were never paying attention to it from the start. Unfortunately, lab safety professionals spend much of their time investigating such incidents rather than being able to prevent them. If laboratory staff could understand the power of the pause, labs would have fewer dangerous incidents.

One illustration of that power can be seen in a simple exercise. A group of people is asked to read aloud quickly a list of words that indicate different colors- green, red, etc. The words themselves, however, are written in different colors, and the colors do not match the words. For example, the word “red” is written in black, the word “blue” is written in green, etc. This first part goes well, you’re just asking them to read the actual words. Next, however, it gets harder. The people are asked to quickly go down the list again, but this time they are asked to say the color of the word, not that actual word. Typically, this does not go well. For the next step, the exercise is repeated at a much slower pace, with a slight pause between each word. Once a pause is placed between each word, the people recite the correct colors. The incongruent words and colors creates what is known as the “Stroop Effect,” first theorized in 1935, but pausing is a means of overcoming this issue in our brains.

When investigating a needle stick incident, the lab safety officer learned the employee completed the draw, attempted to engage the needle safety device, but stuck their finger when grabbing the needle to toss it into the sharps container. She did not notice the safety device did not engage and the needle was still exposed. The employee stated she was busy and in a hurry because there were many other patients waiting. I have always said that when a lab employee is stressed and busy, that’s when stopping for a moment to gain situational awareness is most important. Had this employee paused for a moment to ensure the needle safety device was fully engaged, the incident would never have occurred.

The lab manager had to speak to a chemistry tech after a serum splash exposure to the eyes. When looking at the work area, the manager noticed there was an adjustable face shield in place but that staff moved it into place only when needed. The tech admitted he was busy at the time of the splash and that he neglected to move the shield into place before uncapping specimens. Again, a pause to think about safety here would have helped.

In another situation, a microbiology technologist was eager to start the day and get it done since her vacation began the next day. She quickly went through the daily checklist and checked items off but did not actually perform the checks. Halfway through the day, she noticed it seemed warm and that it was unusually quiet at her biological safety cabinet work station. She decided to look at the gauges and noticed that there was no protective air flow in operation. She had been working with TB samples all morning. When she reported the issue, the manager told her that all employees in the area would need to go to Employee Health and be followed up for TB exposures. Pausing to perform the safety checks at the beginning of the shift would have made a big difference in that outcome for several employees.

Pausing for safety in the laboratory setting can be a powerful tool, even during the busiest moments. In fact, that’s when it works best. Use that pause in your arsenal, and teach maintaining situational awareness with your staff so that future injuries and exposures can be prevented.

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.

Fighting Fire with Fire

In 1939, the first issue of Marvel Comics introduced the original Human Torch, an android named Jim Hammond who would burst into flames when exposed to oxygen. Fourteen years before that, President Calvin Coolidge proclaimed the first National Fire Prevention Week to commemorate the Chicago fire of 1871 which killed over 300 people 54 years earlier. In that entire span of 68 years, from 1871 to 1939, over 17,000 people died in fires in the United States. Because of fire awareness campaigns over the years, the number of home and work place deaths have greatly decreased, and the risk of fire in your lab goes down when fire safety awareness increases as well.

In the laboratory, fire safety begins with a look at the physical environment. It is important to make sure the department is set up to prevent a fire from starting and to keep one from spreading if a fire ignites. The electrical wiring in the lab plays a large part in fire safety. Frayed cords are the number one cause of laboratory fires, and daisy-chained extension cords or multi-plug adaptors are fire hazards as well. Damaged outlets can also present danger. Because equipment may move often in the environment, it is a good idea to check for safety in the lab electrical set up regularly. In audits I have performed this year alone, I have discovered three damaged electrical cords just waiting to cause a fire. Things change rapidly in the lab physical environment, so looking for these potential safety issues is vital.

The next aspect of the lab physical layout that needs attention is flammable chemical storage. There are complicated regulations about that, and multiple classes of flammable liquids, but you can simplify storage rules to make it easy to understand. In general, there should be no more than one gallon of a flammable liquid out in the lab per every 100 square feet. If there are automatic sprinklers in the department, that amount can go up to two gallons. If safety cans are used, the amount can be doubled again. Any excess volume of flammable liquids should be stored inside of a flammable safety cabinet with self-closing doors. Remember, the point of these storage limits is so that if a fire occurs, there is not a large amount of flammable material in one location. That slows the spread of the fire and allows automatic fire extinguishing systems to be able to perform their job effectively.

Fire-fighting equipment should be available as well, and staff are required to have training to use that equipment if it is available in the department. The best training includes a regular hands-on return demonstration and periodic fire drills. Making sure staff can use fire extinguishers and know how to respond to a fire situation may be the one of the most important safety training policies you can implement. Fire blankets are typically not required per local fire code, but if they are in place, be sure staff is aware of how to use them should the need arise.

The last actions in a departmental fire situation include evacuating and preventing the spread of the fire. To that end, it is important to keep aisles clear and wide for safe travel, and all exit routes and stairwells should be checked to make sure no obstructions exist. Staff should be aware of their primary and secondary evacuation routes, and all exits should be adequately marked. Make sure employees know to close fire and smoke doors during a fire situation.

Even in modern times there are structure fires in the work place, and unfortunately, laboratories are not excluded from that list. The Human Torch could catch fire and not get burned, but we all know that is science fiction, and burns from a fire are no joke. The best practice is to be prepared for a fire-provide training, conduct physical environment rounds, and run drills often. That will protect your staff and make you a true safety super hero.

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.