Anatomy of a Safety Stand Down

In March of 2016, the United States Government Accountability Office (an independent agency that works for Congress) produced a report stating that stronger oversight mechanisms are needed to improve safety in high-containment laboratories. The laboratories referred to are those which work with hazardous biological agents in order to protect public and animal health and the food supply against contamination of those agents. Because of several very public lab safety lapses in the past two years, the report makes 33 recommendations to improve lab safety. These recommendations include the development and update of policies that contain missing safety elements, the reporting of oversight activity to senior officials, and the development of plans with time frames to implement the safety recommendations. The report basically recommends a “Safety Stand Down.” Has your laboratory seen a similar situation? Have you encountered a series of like safety events that created the need to stop and review?

OSHA’s definition of a safety stand down is “an event for employers to talk directly to employees about safety.” Because of the danger to employees, a more specific definition means that all work stops until the issue is corrected and all affected (or potentially affected) staff has been educated to make sure the issue does not re-occur. However, in the real world, unless someone is in imminent danger, the work of the laboratory must go on for the sake of patient care. Still, a stand down can be important, and there are ways to run one successfully.

Once you have decided there is a need for the stand-down, develop the stand-down education. This can include a set of presentation slides, a hand-out, or talking points to use as the information is delivered. Make sure you stick to the topic(s) at hand, and do not include extraneous information, but be certain to include all items that are pertinent to the stand-down subject.

The next step is deciding on the stand-down delivery approach. Will you meet with staff one-on one, in small groups, or with everyone at the same time? Choose the meeting location(s) and schedule the meetings. Because this is a stand-down and a safety issue that must be dealt with, these steps should occur quickly. If you are facilitating the stand-down but not delivering it personally, be sure to give a short deadline for its completion and mandate that all involved personnel are included. Keep documentation of attendance and subject matter for future reference.

Once the stand-down is completed, gather the documentation of attendance and any other associated information and keep it for your records. This does not end the stand-down, however. Make a plan and a schedule to follow-up on the safety issue. The plan may include daily or weekly checks to ensure new processes are being followed or that staff has understood the information completely.

Conducting a laboratory safety stand-down can seem difficult and time-consuming. It may interrupt the work you planned to do, and it may change your schedule for the next couple of days or weeks. While that may be inconvenient, remember that this course of action was chosen to help prevent harm to employees or patients, and that is what laboratory professionals are here to do.

During the week of May 2, 2016, OSHA called for a construction fall prevention safety stand-down. This was in response to a high number of preventable worker deaths due to falls on the job. What safety issues have you seen in your lab? Have you seen multiple needle sticks? What about slips, trips, and falls? If you notice a group of similar safety events, it may be time to conduct a safety stand-down. If you deliver the information, provide the education, and document the attendance of all affected staff, you will prevent further injury and continue to raise awareness in the lab of vital safety issues.

 

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-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 Gloves Are Off … Or Are They?

The manager of the microbiology laboratory walked into the monthly staff meeting to discuss safety. Her first announcement was that the one clean hand washing sink in the department was going to be removed. The techs were shocked, and some were angry. Didn’t the manager care about infection prevention and control? Didn’t she know that hand hygiene should always occur after PPE is removed and before leaving the lab? The manager waited for the reactions to subside, then she explained that since the staff treated the lab as a clean area in many instances, that there should be no need for hand washing. The staff went on to argue that they were working with microbiological pathogens, and that they did wear lab coats and gloves, especially when handling specimens and setting them up for cultures. Some of those specimen containers were pretty disgusting, in fact.

That was when the manager dropped the charade. She had no real intention of removing the sink, but she wanted to make a point. She was tired of watching her staff reading culture plates with no gloves. She had spoken about it before, but no one agreed- they had been handling incubated plates for years.

One of the most common issues lab managers and safety professionals face is maintaining Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) compliance in the work area. An effective weapon in this battle is telling stories of lab incidents with bad outcomes, or explaining the consequences of this unsafe behavior. That is a valuable piece of lab safety education. It is unfortunate that we sometimes have to learn from others’ mistakes, but when it comes to safety, that’s better than learning from your own. Some lab accidents and exposures can be career-altering or career-ending.

OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogen Standard states that PPE (specifically gloves) must be worn when there is a risk of exposure. That is as specific as they get on the topic. Anytime patient specimens are handled or opened, it follows that gloves should be worn. That means that in the microbiology area, staff is handling specimens and agar plates with gloves while they streak plates and set up gram stain slides. These contaminated gloves are handling plate after plate, and then those plates are placed into the incubators. Like any other contaminated item in the lab, those plates should be treated and handled with gloves until properly discarded. That means that gloves are necessary when removing plates from the incubator, and when reading those cultures. Not only is staff handling contaminated plates, but they are working with bacterial and fungal colonies. There is a high risk of exposure in those processes.

OSHA also requires PPE under its Chemical Hygiene Standard (or Lab Standard). Gloves are required when handling chemicals, so they would be needed when performing simple chemical tests (oxidase, catalase, etc.) and when performing gram stains. Make sure you use chemical-resistant gloves when selecting the appropriate PPE for these tasks.

In 2010, OSHA responded to an inquiry specifically about the use of gloves while handling culture plates in the microbiology laboratory. The letter “strongly suggests” the use of gloves for the task, but OSHA’s own standards already address the issue and clearly require the need for PPE in that situation.

The story at the beginning of this entry is true- there was a lab manager who was fed up with her staff not wearing gloves, so she told them she was removing the sink. She was kidding, but she made her point. In that microbiology lab they all wear gloves to read cultures today.

Laboratory-acquired infections occur every year, and some of the easiest ones to investigate are the cases in which techs are infected with pathogenic bacteria. It is fairly easy to trace the sources of those exposures. What is the staff doing in your microbiology laboratory? Are they doing everything they can to prevent exposure to pathogens? As a manager or safety professional, are you enforcing the use of PPE when exposure is possible? Keep your staff from becoming a safety statistic- provide PPE, teach consequences of unsafe behaviors, and monitor the continual use of those safe work practices in your lab.

 

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-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.

“Flustration”

Contrary to popular belief, “irregardless” is not a word. The correct word is “regardless.” One can be frustrated or one can be flustered, but it is incorrect to say one is “flustrated.”When these common grammatical errors are made, it can be very irksome for some Type A Personality laboratory professionals. For those in the field of lab safety, however, this can be a lesson for learning how to improve the lab safety culture.

Very often grammatical errors are made because people simply do not remember what is correct, or the correct use of the word was never explained to them. If we hear something that is wrong, we may make a judgement about the person who said it—they are not well-educated, they are lazy, etc. We tell ourselves a story, and often, unfortunately, it is inaccurate.

You walk into the laboratory and you see the new tech Judy working at the bench with no gloves. Last week you spoke to Judy about the same issue, and she told you she would wear them from now on. In your frustration you believe Judy to be obdurate and someone who willfully violates lab safety practices. Because these things are in your mind, the conversation you are about to have with Judy will not go well.

Consider the following options:

  • Judy ran out of gloves and doesn’t know where to get more.
  • Judy went to get more gloves in the store room, but there is a combination lock on the door and she doesn’t know what it is.
  • Judy has developed a skin reaction to the gloves and is embarrassed to bring it up.
  • Judy just received a phone call that her mother is very ill and she is quite upset.
  • Judy saw the supervisor working without gloves and assumed you spoke to her last week because it’s your job to look out for safety.

These are just some of the possible influences on Judy’s decision not to wear gloves. To have good conversations about safety, your job is to determine the real issue without telling yourself stories first. Maybe everyone in the lab says “irregardless.” Maybe no one ever told Judy the correct word to use.

If you want to make a difference in your lab safety culture, think about the sources of influence on staff behavior. Ask about the reasons for the behavior, and work patiently to educate people about the consequences of unsafe actions. Use these tactics to reduce the amount of “flustration” you may feel when working to promote safety every day.

 

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-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.

Podcast: Answers to Your Ebola Preparedness Questions

The editors of Lab Medicine recently sat down with ASCP President Dr. Finn, Dr. Nancy Cornish from the Centers for Disease Control, and Dr. Lance Peterson from NorthShore HealthSystem to answer your questions about laboratory preparedness for a patient infected with Ebola Virus. You can listen to it here.

Laboratory and Hospital Ebola Response

Laboratories are currently scrambling to define and put into place procedures for dealing with processing and testing of samples from highly infectious patients. The CDC has guidelines for healthcare workers and for laboratories specifically (http://www.cdc.gov/vhf/ebola/hcp/index.html). They also are very willing to help. Because Dallas had actual cases of Ebola, our hospital in Dallas mounted a hospital-wide response, in which the CDC and Texas State and County Health Departments were involved early on and throughout. This blog post describes the plans we instituted.

It quickly became clear that we did not want to transport infectious material through the hospital if we could avoid it, keeping everything infectious isolated in a single area. The hospital cleared an ICU wing which contained two negative pressure rooms, and the laboratory used an ICU room two doors away to create a mini-lab. The entire ICU wing was closed off as an isolation zone. No samples will leave the isolation zone unless they are headed for the CDC or State lab, and those will be couriered directly from the isolation zone.

All testing that can be, will be done on the I-stat in the patient room, including electrolytes, BUN, creatinine, ionized calcium and blood gases. A meeting was held with the ICU physicians who will be treating patients, to ask what testing they could foresee requiring other than those available on the I-stat. Their final list included platelets, CBC and coag tests, and originally also asked for ammonia and liver function tests. The only test we could not provide for them was ammonia. We couldn’t find a way to perform ammonia on a whole blood sample and had decided not to centrifuge any samples due to the possible risks of aerosolizing the sample and additional risks associated with aliquotting samples.

For the coag tests, we chose to use the I-stat PT/INR. Knowing that PT/INR on the I-stat is not FDA approved for anything other than Coumadin monitoring, we performed a full CLIA validation of the PT/INR in order to be able to use it for Ebola patients. Using the I-stat this way causes the PT/INR to become a high-complexity test, therefore only those individuals with appropriate licensure, training and competency will be performing the test at bedside.

Testing other than what is available on the I-stat will be done in the mini-lab set up in the nearby ICU room. It will be performed by lab personnel in full PPE, including PAPR (powered air purifying respirators), 3 layers of gloves, etc, all within the isolation zone. Lab testing in the mini-lab will occur once a day, with a possibility of twice a day. We purchased an Abaxis Piccolo for performing the liver enzymes and a Sysmex pocH-100i for the CBC and platelets. Both these analyzers will be run in the mini-lab room. The piccolo will be run inside a biosafety cabinet (BSC) which was put in the room because the piccolo is not a closed system. Sample pipetting into the piccolo carousel will occur in the BSC.

As far as blood utilization, the plan is to perform a one time, ABO only, blood typing on admission of a patient. A blood bank technologist in full PPE will perform the ABO only blood type manually in the BSC in the mini-lab. This ABO only typing has also been validated on samples allowed to settle rather than being centrifuged. The plan is for any patients to receive type O-negative blood if transfusions are required. However if they should require type-specific blood products for any reason (i.e. shortage of O-negative), it was felt that performing the blood type early before viral titers are really high would be better than waiting.

To work in the isolation wing, personnel must don full isolation PPE, including PAPR, etc, with a multi-step system in place for both donning and doffing the equipment. A buddy system is used throughout, with training on all procedures being continuous. The lab personnel who have volunteered to staff the mini-lab have undergone the PPE training. All of this perhaps excessive care is being taken in order to protect all other patients, as well as all healthcare team members, both lab and non-lab. Although Ebola may never reach our hospital, we live in a world where global travel makes if very likely that we will see patients with this or other highly infectious diseases appear in our facilities. It’s important to be as prepared as possible.

 

-Patti Jones PhD, DABCC, FACB, is the Clinical Director of the Chemistry and Metabolic Disease Laboratories at Children’s Medical Center in Dallas, TX and a Professor of Pathology at University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center in Dallas.

 

Laboratory Testing in A High-Containment Facility

The team at Emory that cared for the patients infected with the Ebola Virus have published a paper on Lab Medicine about laboratory testing within a high-containment facility. You can read the entire paper on the Lab Medicine website.