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.

The Fundamental Attribution Error

As laboratory safety professionals, we know that an important part of the job is the ability to coach other lab team members when unsafe situations are observed. To coach someone is to confront a coworker about an issue for the sake of safety-theirs, yours, or that of a patient. Those coworkers may be fellow lab employees, supervisors, managers, or even physicians. The word “confront” might sound strong, particularly to those who may be uncomfortable with these types of encounters, but this coaching is an important and valuable skill. 

Coaching your peers is no easy task, and it takes practice to be able to do it well. I recently walked into a laboratory that was unfamiliar to me, and I saw a technologist working at the bench with no lab coat, no gloves, and no face protection. At first I thought, “that would never happen in a one of my labs,” and then, “the lab safety culture here is terrible.”

I learned I was wrong on both counts, and the incident reminded me of the necessity to stop and think before forming an opinion or even speaking about a lab safety issue. I provide training often about how to coach staff who are acting unsafely while in the lab, and I have learned that how a coaching moment will go depends largely on what is in the head of the coach before he or she speaks. It is important to remember that if someone acts in a manner that displeases or disappoints you, there are several possible sources of influence acting on that person.

Psychologists have coined it the “Fundamental Attribution Error.” Humans who are disappointed usually think the other person has committed the wrong intentionally or because they are not intelligent. Neither of these conclusions is ever correct, and that thought process usually leads to a coaching session that will not be successful.

Take the scenario I mentioned above, for example. What is your gut reaction when you see someone working in a lab without PPE? Maybe that lab tech just found out a relative had passed away and they were waiting for someone to relieve them, or maybe there were no lab coats or gloves available in their size. The possibilities are endless, so you need to train yourself to be calm first and to ask questions to learn what is really happening without making assumptions. It’s more difficult to do than one would think.

The success of a safety coaching moment is determined in your head before you even speak. You have the power to make it a positive event. It is true that some people just will not accept it well no matter what we do (a reminder to ourselves to always be ready to accept coaching), but by and large a successful event starts in the mind of the person who is coaching for safety.

When you see a lab safety problem, it is vital that you confront the person. However, before you do so, ask yourself, “why would a rational person behave this way? What am I not seeing here?” If you start with that, your coaching for safety will be much more successful, and you will see a positive change in your overall lab safety culture.

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 Disaster Risk Assessment

There are multiple types of risk assessments required when managing a laboratory safety program. OSHA’s Bloodborne and Airborne pathogens standards require assessing the risk of employees’ exposure to particular lab hazards. Risk assessments can be used to determine whether or not to add an emergency eyewash station, and all lab chemicals need to be assessed for the hazards they pose. These are just some assessments that are needed, and there are particular steps to take when performing them. But what about the lab emergency management plan? Should the lab perform a risk assessment for that? The answer is yes, although the terminology used may be different. To prepare a disaster readiness plan for the lab, the risk assessment that is needed is known as a Hazard Vulnerability Analysis (HVA).

The Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services (CMS) requires that all healthcare facilities use an “all-hazards” approach when considering emergency preparedness and planning. While some laboratories may be included with the facility-wide disaster plan, the lab should absolutely have its own plan with specific instructions that apply directly to the department. That means the lab should also consider an all-hazards approach.

It may seem daunting to try to consider every possible disaster that could occur in the department, but that is not exactly what the directive from CMS dictates. An all-hazards approach means that emergency plans should be scalable or flexible so that it can be used for many types of disasters. The plan should focus on the lab’s ability to continue to offer services, especially those deemed critical, as a disaster situation unfolds.

The first step to the plan creation is the risk assessment- the Hazard Vulnerability Analysis. The HVA can be a table that lists all of the potential types of disaster; natural, man-made, facility-specific, etc. List as many as you can think of, and be sure to include specific disasters that may be particular to your locale (earthquakes, blizzards, etc.). Rate each disaster type by probability, severity of impact, and level of readiness of the lab to respond. Using that data, you can calculate the risk percentage for each emergency type.

One other requirement imposed by CMS is that facilities must include emerging infectious diseases as one potential type of hazard class. With the advent of particular diseases in the past years like Ebola, Zika, and certain influenza types, it is important to consider how an outbreak would affect lab operations and staffing. The risk level of infectious diseases may vary as incidents and outbreaks occur in particular geographic regions or if pandemics arise.

The HVA should be reviewed and updated as necessary each year. Things change that can affect what is on your HVA list. The addition of a nearby airport might make you consider adding airline disaster to the HVA. A change in weather patterns could occur as well. In 2011 a surprise earthquake in Virginia made state facilities re-look at their HVA list of possible emergency situations. Also, the actual list of disasters might not change, but there may be a change in the potential of a particular incident occurring.

If your lab or facility has not yet performed the HVA risk assessment, there is no need to panic. There are several model HVA tools available on line that can be used. As with any risk assessment, be sure to keep documentation readily available, review it each year, and make sure staff are trained about not only the HVA process, but in how to use the emergency management plan as well. There is a great amount of work that can go into preparing for a disaster, and training and drills for your staff will help to facilitate a smoother activation of the plan when the real emergency situation occurs.

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.

Think S.P.I.L.L.E.D.

Large biological and chemical spills are not a common occurrence in the laboratory. That’s a good thing, but when they do occur, they can create a very dangerous situation. It is vital that lab staff know how to handle such events even though they may not be commonplace.

Some laboratories differentiate between large and small spills. They may have an emergency number to call for a hazardous spill response team. Other smaller facilities simply don’t have that in place. Either way, it’s important for laboratory professionals to know they are the experts about the biological and chemical materials they use, and they need to be in charge as the experts when a spill situation needs to be managed.

Most laboratory spills can be managed using a standardized step-wise process known as the S.P.I.L.L.E.D. procedure. I don’t usually ask lab staff to memorize the acronym, but having the information contained on a poster with the lab spill kits can make a clean-up procedure go smoothly.

S = Secure the Site – Make sure no one walks through the area where a spill has occurred. It could be a dangerous situation if a hazardous chemical is spilled, and you would never want someone slipping in the area or tracking the spilled material to another area.

P = Protect Yourself – Arm yourself with the appropriate Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). In a lab spill event, this would mean using a lab coat, gloves, and face protection to prevent accidental splashes.

I = Inspect the Spill – Look to see what was spilled. If it is a hazardous chemical, is there a concern about fumes? Obtain a Safety Data Sheet to see if section 6 will give any special information about handling the accidental release or spill of that chemical. Consider other spill concerns such as broken glass or possible ignition sources if flammable material is involved.

L = Lay Down a Barrier – If the spill is large and spreading, lay down spill pillows or booms designed to contain a flow of liquids. Surround the spill area with these materials. Sometimes, the use of an emergency shower can create the need for a barrier to be made.

L = Lay Down Absorbents – No matter the size of the spill, the next step is to place any absorbent powders, granules or clean-up pads to soak up the spilled material. If the absorbent is also a neutralizer, make sure you allow the necessary time for neutralization to occur.

E = Extract the Mess – Use implements to pick up the materials used for stopping and absorbing the spill.

D = Dispose of the Waste – Properly dispose of all materials involved with the spill clean-up. If there was glass involved, be sure to use a sharps container.  Biohazard material should go into an appropriate container, and chemical waste materials may need to be disposed of separately for pick-up by a chemical waste vendor.

Lab staff should be able to access spill control materials quickly, and the necessary items should be stored in a location designated by signage. Perform an inventory of spill supplies and make sure there are adequate materials that could handle spills of the biohazards and chemicals stored and used in the department. Be sure items in the spill kit are not expired, and if there is no expiration date for absorbent powders, check them at least annually for effectiveness.

All laboratory staff need to have complete spill clean-up training. Give information about the types and locations of spill kits and how to handle various types of spills that can occur. Once that training is done, it will become important to perform spill drills in the department. Drills can be performed a number of different ways, but a common method involves having a “victim” spill water onto the floor and claim the material splashed into their eyes. Watch from a distance to see how the staff reacts. Do they provide appropriate first aid? Do they inspect the container label? Do they access the correct clean-up supplies and facilitate cleaning efficiently? Make notes of how the drill went, discuss them with the staff, and repeat the drills until all staff are comfortable with a spill situation. Biological and chemical spills should not be a common occurrence in the lab. When they do occur, however, the situation can become serious quickly, and a fast and effective clean-up needs to occur. Because these events are rare, it becomes important to provide regular spill training and drills so staff can remain ever-ready to handle them.

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.

Regulating Your Lab Medical Waste

In general, there are two reasons employees in the laboratory should care about proper waste disposal. Improper disposal is expensive. Laboratorians like raises, bonuses, and updated equipment, but there is less money for those things when paper items are tossed into sharps containers or when used gloves go into red bag trash containers. Labs in many states also risk large fines if items with biohazard symbols are disposed of into regular trash containers. The other reason to care about trash disposal involves the environment. Regulated Medical Waste (red bag trash and sharps) has to be treated, and some of it is incinerated while some ends up in special biohazard landfills. Both of those are things we want less of in our environment.

As a lab safety professional, you may know of several other reasons to implement and maintain proper lab waste segregation, but in my years of safety training, money and the environment are the two that tend to hit home with staff. There are multiple waste streams generated in the lab setting, and while management in some departments may choose to offer only biohazard waste receptacles for everything, the safety savvy professional knows this is wasteful and perhaps a bit lazy. With proper education and training, laboratorians are capable of goo trash segregation that meets the regulations and meets best practice standards.

Appropriate trash segregation in the lab requires knowledge about what waste goes into what type of container, and it requires availability and proper placement of those containers. If a processing department only uses red bag trash cans, for example, then much of the non-hazardous waste will end up there. Assess the laboratory areas for proper placement of all necessary types of waste receptacles.   

In one lab, it was discovered that staff was throwing out urine containers with embedded needles into red bag trash containers. Why? There simply were no sharps containers in the area. It was a simple fix to move containers nearby, but no one was paying attention, and there could have been an unnecessary needle stick exposure. In another lab staff emptied urine sample cups into the sink and tossed them into regular trash bins. From a waste standpoint, that was fine, but because there was patient information on the container labels, HIPAA violations occurred.

Many venipuncture sample tubes used today are plastic, and they cannot be broken to create sharp edges. Given that, those items could be disposed of into biohazard trash bags. That can save a lab some money by reducing the volume of sharps containers used (they are more expensive to handle). However, glass specimen tubes are still available for purchase. Be sure to check for these in your racks before throwing out all lab tubes into a plastic bag. A broken tube can cause a very unfortunate exposure event.

Place patient information and extra labels into bins for shredding if available. Teach staff that in most cases it is acceptable to place used disposable lab coats and gloves into regular trash receptacles provided they are not visibly bloody. Other items can go into the regular waste stream such as plastic transfer pipettes, gauze pads, and paper towels (again, provided there is no blood visible on them).

If items can be broken to create a sharp edge, they should be disposed of into a sharps container. That includes specimen cups made of hard plastic, sharp pipette tips, and any glass item. Agar plates and wooden applicator sticks should also go into a sharps container. Remember, if the item breaks while a trash bag is handled, an employee may become exposed, and the incident would need to be treated as an unknown source exposure, something that should always be avoided.

Make sure staff know the proper disposal of chemical waste as well. Never pour chemical waste down the drain unless your facility has a permit to do so. Place chemical waste containers in appropriate locations and label them according to EPA regulations. Provide proper training for employees who sign waste manifests when hazardous waste is hauled away from the lab. If you take the easy route and combine all of your laboratory waste, you would be responsible for both increased departmental expenses and for unnecessarily adding bio-waste to the environment. Talk regularly to your group of trained lab scientists about proper waste segregation, use signage as reminders, and assess their lab waste knowledge regularly. Proper waste management takes work. Mistakes can be made easily, and some of them can cause injury and invoke heavy fines. Invest in a robust laboratory waste management program to avoid those issues and to create a safety savvy example for others.

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.

Safety Mistakes Your Lab Vendors Are Making

Laboratory professionals work with vendor representatives on a regular basis, and it is important to develop a good working relationship with them to ensure continued smooth operations in the department. They provide analyzers, products, equipment, and services. However, lab managers and employees may sometimes need to pay special attention to the actions a representative will take in the department or to some of the information they may provide. They should be experts about their products and processes, but they may not always be well-versed in your lab-specific process and the regulations.

One common safety mistake representatives make has to do with proper use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Not all vendors provide adequate PPE training, and many of the representatives may not have a laboratory background. Check to make sure vendors wear lab coats and gloves when working in the lab, and offer face protection if they open up instruments for repairs or diagnostics. Some reps bring their own lab coats and use them in different settings where they work. This is common, but it is also a violation of OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogens standard. PPE used in a lab should never be taken out of the department (except as waste). Don’t let your vendor roll up his used lab coat and place it into his work bag for his next stop. Let him know about the regulations and offer him a new disposable coat upon each visit.

Another common issue with lab vendor reps is the use of laptop computers and cellphones in the laboratory. In some cases, they must use their computers to connect to instruments or to the company control center, but they should be decontaminated before removal from the department, especially if they were set on top of a lab counter or analyzer. Can reps use lab phones instead of their cell phones? It’s a worthwhile question, especially if cell phone use is against your lab policy (it should be), and if allowing vendor use of the cell phone will be a detriment to your lab’s safety culture. Again, as with PPE use, this safety knowledge may not be known by the vendor company, and certainly they need education about local policies as well.

Laboratory vendors that manufacture analyzers or that design testing processes know their products inside and out, but their set-up work and lab staff training should be monitored, particularly if the information pertains to local or state regulations. For example, some lab analyzers are put in place using an extension cord for power because the analyzer cord doesn’t reach the outlet. In many locales, the permanent of an extension cord is not permitted. Often a vendor will train staff to incorrectly dispose of bio-hazardous or chemical waste. That can lead to large citations and fines if the mistakes are not caught and corrected. If a new process or analyzer generates a new waste stream, be sure all waste regulations are being followed. For example, if an instrument waste line is tied to a drain, contact your local wastewater treatment center to obtain approval for drain disposal.

Labs need vendors and their representatives, they play a vital role making sure the department can provide quality patient testing and care. Be sure these valuable team members understand your operations, and provide lab safety training in order to prevent injuries or even lab-acquired infections. Ask questions, and communicate with the vendor to ensure that all lab safety procedures are being followed and that safety regulations are not violated. Keeping that eye on safety when dealing with vendors will help to ensure that the important relationships created with them will last.

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 System

Outside the city of New Bern, in Craven County, North Carolina, there is a particular system for residents to dispose of their garbage. Locals must go to the nearest participating gas station and purchase stickers which cost about $2.00 each. These stickers must be placed on each bag of garbage generated in the household, otherwise they will not be picked up during the weekly trash collection. In order to save money, a group of widows has formed a club in which members scout out the open dumpsters in town (usually behind stores or gas stations). Then they call and let group members know where they can covertly dump their trash for free that week.

This story may seem funny, but for the most part, it is true. I have no doubt this also occurs in other parts of the country where the system for trash collection is similar. Why do people behave this way? Are they purposely trying to circumvent the trash collection system in place or is the system just not easy for locals to utilize? If you’re having difficulty getting people to change safety behaviors (like PPE compliance) in your laboratory, you might need to determine that for the systems you have in place and ask similar questions.

In one laboratory the manager struggles with staff who work part of the day in a clean office and another part in the lab itself. When the employees go into the lab for brief periods, they often fail to don their PPE. Upon further investigation, you would learn that staff are not allowed to keep their lab coats on their chairs and that all PPE is kept in one lab store room located on the opposite side away from the offices. The system is set up to reinforce PPE non-compliance.

In another lab the manager placed a permanently-mounted counter face shield in the chemistry department so that staff would be forced to use it when popping specimen caps. Staff loaded instrument racks behind the shield, but when they carried the racks over to the analyzers, their faces were not protected from splashing. Exposures continued to occur. Here the system is at play again. A face shield was put in place to change behaviors, but it was only a partial solution. In order to protect staff fully here, they would need goggles or a face shield that can be worn. Offer light-weight reusable or disposable face protection that staff can use easily. Be sure to give them a say in whatever option is chosen.

Sometimes the system issues are not apparent until there is a safety event, and unfortunately, that can result in bigger problems. If your training program does not include regular fire safety training, a small fire situation may get out of hand quickly. Does your staff have experience handling a fire extinguisher? Would they easily be able to put out a fire? Do they know their evacuation routes and meeting places, and could they get there with ease? What about the lab emergency management plan? Have staff participated in a table-top drill so they have a basic understanding of how to respond during a chaotic disaster? These are examples of some safety systems that need to be in place to keep staff ready and safe at all times.

When people take shortcuts or find ways to circumvent the system, there is usually a pretty good reason, Often, it is the design of the system. In New Bern, elderly women can’t lift large heavy trash bags, so they use smaller bags. They don’t want to pay the same price for a garbage bag sticker that others are paying for big bags. There’s a problem with the system- and those ladies found a way around it. What problems do you see in your lab safety system? If you don’t know what they are, ask around. Staff will talk. It’s better to find out what the workarounds are now and to fix them before an injury or exposure occurs.

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.