When management decides to hire a laboratory safety consultant, it usually means that a significant safety issue has occurred. The impetus for bringing on a consultant could be an injury, or perhaps the laboratory was fined during a regulatory inspection. Whatever the reason, the problem is large enough to get notice from decision-makers in the organization, and with a safety event, that is rarely good news.
There are proactive needs and uses for a lab safety consultant as well, and there are ways to recognize the need for one before that serious safety event occurs. Many lab leaders do not understand the value of a safety consultant and the methods of maximizing the work they can do to improve the overall lab safety culture. Here are five benefits safety consultants can bring to the lab.
Outside safety eyes
Having a fresh set of eyes on the lab can be a major advantage. When working with the same policies and procedures for years, it can be tricky to know if there are issues, mistakes, or even missing but necessary content. An outside view by a content expert who has seen documents from multiple labs and organizations can help a lab to improve their written safety program.
The number and types of safety issues that can be discovered by fresh eyes in a laboratory is usually an “eye-opener” for the hiring organization. In one laboratory, a safety consultant was hired to perform a safety audit and while walking through an area with multiple safety deficiencies, an employee asked, “What is it you are looking for?” Much like a fish cannot see the water in which it swims, the employee who works in the department every day may not be able to identify the safety hazards that can be obvious to a consultant. Busy laboratory managers walk through their departments each day and with several operational tasks in mind, they may fail to notice the safety hazards present in the department, some of which have been there for quite some time. Hiring a safety consultant for a comprehensive audit can bring those many issues to light so that the important acts of mitigation and resolution can begin.
Customized training and education
A safety consultant can provide much-needed, customized safety education for the laboratory staff. Information gained from the client at an initial interview can be used by the consultant to create live or recorded training sessions that can bring the lab into compliance with OSHA and other regulatory agency safety training requirements. Hands-on fire extinguisher training, walking the evacuation route, and even conducting emergency management tabletop drills are just some types of training that can occur with an on-site consultant.
Making the decision to engage with a laboratory safety consultant should be done with careful consideration, and the decision is best made before injuries or fines occur.
If the consultant is asked to perform an on-site audit, information and photographs from that audit can be used to customize a live or recorded presentation. Consultants can also be hired to provide focused ongoing training specifically for a safety officer or a lab safety committee. This training can be tailored to help a laboratory develop and maintain a solid safety program structure with ongoing indicators of program success.
Connection to resources
Because of a lack of time and competing priorities, laboratory leadership often struggles with knowing and using resources to help them achieve their safety goals. Internal resources, such as facilities, infection prevention, and environmental services are often used, but external resources tend to be underutilized. A lab safety consultant can connect lab staff with appropriate and useful outside aides.
A safety expert can be hired to work with the fire authority to determine local fire code regulations or to gather information about the lab fire prevention needs. There can be relationships developed with the state representative of the Environmental Protection Agency to make certain the lab is handling and disposing of its hazardous waste properly. The consultant will have knowledge about which authorities and safety regulations are pertinent to the lab, and they will be able to initiate contact with representatives of those agencies, who can be consulted for future lab regulatory discussions and compliance improvements.
The safety consultant will also be able to provide lab safety leadership with available and up-to-date laboratory safety references. These will include access to regulations, current accreditation safety checklists and standards, and the latest lab safety publications.
Sustained safety structure
Many laboratories that seek a consultant because of a recent safety event or a fine do not have an organized safety structure in their department(s). There may be one person who has been placed “in charge” of lab safety, but often they are not given the authority or scope of oversight they need to properly administer in the role. If there is a weak or non-existent safety program, the remaining staff typically perform their daily duties without any concerns about their safety or the safety of others. If a serious safety event has not already occurred, one is on the horizon.
Leaders can use a consultant to help them define a working safety structure, which may include a designated safety officer, the development of a safety committee, a programmed system for developing and updating policies, and the collection and monitoring of safety statistics and data. The consultant will work with laboratory leadership to help make decisions about who may be best qualified to serve as a safety expert and decide how much and what kind of training may be necessary for that individual moving forward. If a safety committee is needed, work can be done to see if it should be a lab-specific committee or if the lab should be part of a larger, pre-existing organizational committee. The consultant can guide the laboratory leaders in organizing committee meetings, setting up the agenda, and focusing on specific safety metrics such as injury reduction and tracking near-miss events.
An organized, complete lab safety structure that includes designated staff with identified roles will go a long way toward improving the overall safety culture in the department. Sustainability in safety is created by using the safety officer, the safety committee, and the policies and procedures to generate staff education and ongoing safety awareness. Over time, this comprehensive safety program will help to make improvements and move to the important goal of preventing staff injuries and exposures.
Return on investment
Usually, hiring consultants is not a low-cost affair, and an organization that needs to hire one should ensure they are getting the maximum benefit from their investment. First, when meeting with a consultant to discuss needs and ask about costs, be sure to ask if the services offered can be customized for the needs of the organization. For example, if only a policy and procedure review and audit are needed, get specific pricing for those exact requests. Work together to get an itemized proposal outlining what the lab needs to get out of its interaction with the safety consultant. The laboratory will get a good return on its investment only if it purchases what it needs without extras.
If the consulting proposal comes with provisions such as reports, follow-up meetings, and phone calls or ongoing training, be sure to make the time to utilize them. Review the audit results and take any necessary actions to correct issues. Share the results with the team to get engagement with the audit process. Ask for a copy of the audit form and have team members repeat the audit to look for improvements over time. Make time for the follow-up phone calls. Reach out to the consultant with questions as they arise. Take full advantage of what was paid for by the organization to get the most out of the financial outlay.
Another helpful return on investment that can be overlooked is to have the safety consultant meet with laboratory administration after the safety audit and/or policy review. Having a paid expert on site will lend weight to the safety issues that the lab may be facing. Sometimes changes are needed; safety officers need to be put in place or given authority. This wrap-up meeting with administrators can often be a vehicle toward making the big changes that are necessary for lab safety improvement in the department.
Making the decision to engage with a laboratory safety consultant should be done with careful consideration, and the decision is best made before injuries or fines occur. Locate a consultant using web searches, LinkedIn, or by asking other colleagues for references. Once you have decided to engage a lab safety consultant, if you aim to maximize the work they can do for the organization, your lab will be well on the way to the safer working environment that is desired both by staff and laboratory leadership.