Building Habits through Lab Safety Activities
Participation in safety activities from staff and management improves safety culture
Consistent safety activities have the potential to create a stronger safety culture. When lab management fully embraces these tools, the benefits can include decreased injuries, increased morale and productivity, and improved cost savings. How can safety activities contribute to a stronger safety culture? Consider this: Major League Baseball players practice similar drills as Little Leaguers. By turning the fundamentals into habits, professionals and amateurs alike can focus on more complex tasks. This lesson applies to all aspects of life, including a safe laboratory environment.
The following safety activities are options for companies to consider implementing. These activities should be completed consistently with intention and recorded for the sake of accountability.
Lab inspections help provide a baseline for lab cleanliness and serve to ensure that labs are safe for employees. By regularly inspecting a lab, the staff are encouraged to keep their space tidy and safe. Most workplaces already perform lab inspections, but how they are done can be just as important as simply doing them. Lab cleanliness requires time. Through inspections, lab managers can see first-hand that their employees require more time to attend to cleaning activities.
An inspection checklist and inspector diversity can further improve lab inspections. It’s easy to only catch the most obvious offenses and miss smaller problems, which have the potential to become larger over time. Prepared checklists allow inspectors to inspect labs with greater consistency. Including a diverse range of employees on the inspection team (i.e., employees from all levels of the organization) can ensure that inspections don’t become routine, and regularly rotating the members of an inspection team can help spot problems other inspection teams overlook.
Incident prevention tasks
Incident prevention tasks (IPTs) are performed when an employee observes an unsafe behavior or condition and addresses or corrects the issue. For example, a common unsafe condition is water on the floor. If an employee observes this condition, they should immediately correct the condition by removing the water from the floor to prevent someone else from slipping and falling, which is “among the leading [cause] of serious work-related injuries and deaths,” according to OSHA.1 The key to preventing common—and sometimes more complex—incidents is to act immediately when unsafe behaviors or conditions are seen. Incidents cannot be prevented if employees assume issues will be corrected by someone else. All employees have the responsibility to speak up about, and get involved in, the site’s safety. Eventually, employees will observe and habitually correct risks when they routinely perform IPTs.
IPTs should be performed by all employees within an organization to be effective. Involvement throughout the organization shows employees that safety is a priority, and it fosters a cooperative environment. Moreover, employees exposed to greater and more various risks should perform more IPTs than those with less exposure risks.
Consequently, IPTs may offer a certain level of pre-emptive action when enough information is recorded. For instance, if there is a persistence of IPTs concerning ergonomic issues, the organization can be proactive in addressing future ergonomic issues by strengthening their existing practices, policies, or trainings. Also, if there appears to be a preponderance of issues recorded within IPTs over a shorter time period, lab managers may choose to focus discussions with their employees on specific hazard categories.
Activity drift checks
Over time, lab workers can, often unintentionally, start to perform an activity differently than the written procedure details. This “drift” from the procedure can introduce hazards when left unchecked. Activity drift checks (ADCs) provide an opportunity for lab managers to check in with their employees on activities with documented procedures they regularly perform. Regular review of how tasks are performed allows good things to happen. First, quickly catching unsafe drifts from the written procedure can prevent injuries from occurring. Second, drifts that result in increased safety or efficiency of the task may be added to the procedure to document and share best practices. Finally, the review process presents an opportunity to improve the lab safety equipment.
Related Article: Using Risk Management to Improve Lab Safety Programs
ADCs work best when a lab manager observes an employee physically performing the task. The lab manager should simply observe the employee’s actions while comparing to the written procedure and make note of any differences, both safe and unsafe. Once the activity is complete, both lab manager and employee can discuss potential improvements. ADCs aren’t about assigning blame or getting anyone in trouble; they’re a learning opportunity and a chance to improve the safety of the lab.
Organizations can implement many safety activities, but they’re meaningless if no one performs them. Enacting a safer work culture to prevent common mistakes or injuries requires lab managers and site leadership to see the value in a stronger safety culture. Participation of everyone—at all levels within the organization—is required. Organizations that recognize and advocate for a work culture where nothing is more important than the safety of its employees and the communities to which they belong empowers its employees to act, support, and challenge one another to work safely.
Frequency of safety activities
How often do safety activities need to be done to form positive workplace habits? Habits are defined as “actions that are triggered automatically in response to contextual cues that have been associated with their performance.”2 For example, automatically addressing or correcting an unsafe situation (action) after seeing the unsafe situation (contextual cue). “Decades of psychological research” shows that repetition of an action in response to a consistent contextual cue leads to habit formation.2 Organizations can’t survive on safety alone, though. Consistency of activities is key, so setting a weekly or monthly goal for every employee can build slow, but steady, progression of safety habits.
DuPont Bradley Curve
In the 1990s, DuPont devised and implemented a model known as the DuPont Bradley Curve,3 which describes stages an organization’s safety culture must go through to progress toward a goal of zero injuries. These stages are:
- Reactive: People don’t take responsibility and believe accidents will happen.
- Dependent: People view safety as following rules. Accident rates decrease.
- Independent: People take responsibility and believe they can make a difference with actions. Accidents reduce further.
- Interdependent: Teams feel ownership and responsibility for safety culture. They believe zero injuries is an attainable goal.
When applied in tandem with safety activities designed to build positive workplace habits, this system provides a guideline for organizations to follow to develop a stronger safety culture. A strengthened safety culture saves organizations money by avoiding and preventing injuries; and when organizations focus on safety, employees feel valued, leading to lower turnover rates from higher morale and productivity.
However, organizations hoping to achieve the interdependence stage should make a critical distinction. Believing that zero injuries is attainable through a strong safety culture is not the same as attaining zero injuries by underreporting or changing what qualifies as an injury. A culture born from sweeping incidents “under the rug” harms employee morale, and will not prevent injuries or more serious incidents from occurring.
In a jaded world where employees frequently feel expendable, organizations can boost morale by prioritizing their safety. But improving the safety culture doesn’t just benefit employees. By effectively implementing safety activities designed to build positive workplace habits, organizations can decrease and prevent injuries and increase productivity, giving way to greater cost savings; a rare win-win scenario.
The writer acknowledges Air Products & Chemicals and Evonik Industries as sources of inspiration for some of the best practices outlined in this article.
- Gardner, B., Lally, P., & Wardle, J. (2012). Making health habitual: the psychology of 'habit-formation' and general practice. The British Journal of General Practice: The Journal of the Royal College of General Practitioners, 62(605), 664–666. https://doi.org/10.3399/bjgp12X659466