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What are the Six Key Components of a Safe Lab?

How to manage culture, leadership, compliance, risk, training, and habits

Running a safe lab might seem like the 12 labors of Hercules1—but you can cut that in half. If you manage these six aspects well, your lab should run safely and effectively. The order you tackle them matters less than managing all thoroughly and with purpose. While they all interrelate, some flow into each other.

The six components of lab safety are:  risk, leadership, culture, habits and rituals, compliance, and training and learning.

Imagine these possible scenarios:

  • Your scientists haven’t assessed the risks of a process change in their experiment
  • A supervisor keeps popping in without safety glasses
  • Group norms don’t support expressing concerns for each other’s safety
  • Staff get coffee together and some cups are in the lab trash
  • Staff complain about checking the box that they inspected the lab as required
  • Safety training is a series of text-heavy slides without learner interactions

Read on for helpful insights on how to prevent these and other unwanted possibilities.

Risks exist: How will you assess and manage them?

Risk exists. It’s all around, especially in labs, and you can’t avoid it. But how much risk? And once risks are assessed, they must be managed—but how?

People tend to perceive risks differently. Have those conversations, calmly, supportively, and without fear. Just because risk perceptions differ, doesn’t mean they’re wrong. They work for each of us. [LE1] [JK2] 

In Beyond Compliance: The RAMP Framework for Risk Assessment, two certified chemical hygiene officers discuss RAMP (risk, assess, minimize, prepare). It’s a well-vetted and popular method for labs. There are many other risk techniques and tools you can explore as well that may fill your needs.  

“Leaders do the right thing” 

“Managers do things right” is the other half of the quote. We all want effective leaders who show integrity over managers who cite policies.

Sun Tzu said, “A leader leads by example, not by force.” In labs, as in war, some don’t have titles, but we see how they lead. In a lab, people will do as their leader does, not as their leader says. How are yours setting examples?

In Embracing Safety Leadership, learn about the eight key values for effective safety leaders including an engaging story of one leader who made a difference.

“Culture eats strategy for breakfast and policy for lunch”

There are several variations on this quote from the paper industry management association. Despite what you may think of strategies and policies, your lab’s culture will dominate them.

As former NIOSH researcher Elaine Cullen said, “If culture is how we do things here, then safety culture is how we do safety here.”2 A positive lab safety culture won’t form [LE3] [JK4] unless you’re strategic about it. You want a positive culture, not an ambivalent or negative one.

Habits and rituals might save someone

“Old habits die hard,” so don’t let new habits become old ones. You have 21-28 days before habits form, so manage them quickly or they will manage you.

Habits are individualistic yet they can become rituals and change the culture. Read Building Habits through Lab Safety Activities for six approaches to this, and learn about theDuPont Bradley Curve, which describes the four stages of safety culture.

Compliance: Much more than a checklist

No one is thrilled to be compliant. Yet, compliance is what authorities require, we rely on, and expect of others. Why not embrace compliance?  

One way is designing it in. This can make it a nudge3 and not be a “noodge.” Improving Safety Compliance through Lab Design gets at the heart of prevention-through-design and how to facilitate compliance, not fight it.

Training and learning are the backbone of your operations

Peter Senge said, “A learning organization is an organization that is continually expanding its capacity to create its future.” How would you rate your lab staff as avid, self-directed learners? Do they have growth mindsets?

Is your team a true learning organization? Do they embrace mistakes as opportunities to learn and improve? Or do they hide mistakes? Creating a Successful Laboratory Training Program covers how to develop effective training from identifying training needs through transferring knowledge to the bench.

Where to go from here?   

By managing and leading these six key components, you’ll have a lab that runs safely and effectively. Each has its challenges, yet many have managed and mastered each of these. How do you digest these challenges? One bite repeated six times.  

Why not start now with a big bite of risk?

References:

1. Hamilton, Edith. Mythology: Timeless Tales of Gods and Heroes. 1940, Little Brown & Co. published by New American Library, Inc.  

2. Cullen, Elaine and Fein, Albert. Tell Me a Story. 2005. DHHS (NIOSH) Publication No. 2005-152.

3. Thaler, Richard and Sunstein, Cass. Nudge. 2008. Yale University Press.


Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT

Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT, is senior safety editor for Lab Manager. His EHS and risk career spans more than three decades in various roles as a consultant, trainer, professor, embedded safety director for two colleges of engineering, and now writing for Lab Manager. He is a PhD candidate in human and social dimensions of science and technology at Arizona State University where he studies our risk perceptions and the effects of storytelling. He can be reached at: jklane@labmanager.com.


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