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Fostering Good Behavior

Basic etiquette, like good safety practices, requires training and reinforcement

Lina Genovesi

Lab environments are complex and include staff comprising a diverse spectrum of age, gender, and ethnic backgrounds. Most labs operate as multidisciplinary operations with an open floor plan and shared spaces. Adding to their complexity, labs operate in the midst of an onslaught of new electronic technologies and personal electronic devices that have been accepted enthusiastically by some and rejected vehemently by others.

A lab etiquette survey conducted by Lab Manager and followed by discussions with all involved parties unearthed a broad spectrum of issues, opinions, and positions on lab etiquette rules.

Most labs, including those situated in universities and in clinical and industrial settings, have developed etiquette rules guided by the need to provide a safe work environment. Clear rules have been defined relating to the labeling and handling of chemicals and reagents, the maintenance of work areas, and the disposal of biological materials such as used surgical gloves, needles, and tissues. Clear rules have also been defined relating to proper attire, phone etiquette, eating in the lab, excessive noise, blaring music, and behavior with visitors. Differing generational and cultural views on etiquette leave these rules open for debate.

Etiquette lapses relating to attitude, housekeeping, safety practices, equipment care, e-mail and phone practices, and the use of personal electronic devices rank high on the etiquette priority list and require the implementation of a new set of lab etiquette rules.

Maintaining a good attitude ranks highest. A bad attitude is defined by a lack of basic manners (rudeness, inappropriate social behavior, inappropriate attire, and the use of profanities), lack of cooperation, cultural or religious insensitivity, sexism, the spreading of harmful information, bullying, harmful phone and e-mail practices, and misuse of cell phones and electronic devices.

Various options are offered for fostering a good attitude

Labs can be proactive in fostering a good attitude by providing cooperation and teamwork training. “Our lab has taken steps to create an environment where lab etiquette is not only understood but actively followed,” says Amy Parkhurst, lab manager and technician at The Jeffrey Lab, University of Maryland. “We provide a short training on the rules of the lab, observe a non-mandatory morning coffee break to foster interaction, and encourage the practice of honest gratitude such as saying ‘thank you.’”

Parkhurst observes that the lab is functioning as a team. “We’ve gone from being a lab where no one asks for the input of the others on their individual projects to one where all projects are openly discussed. I believe our team environment has made our science stronger.”

Cultural and religious diversity is on the rise, and cultural and religious differences are issues that need to be addressed. Some labs are proactive in fostering a good attitude and respect for others within a diverse group. “It is not unusual for staff from a particular culture to speak in their own language, causing English-only speaking staff to feel uncomfortable, not understanding what is being said,” says Mary N. Clancy, laboratory manager, University of California San Francisco at San Francisco General Hospital and Trauma Center. “A good attitude is fostered by speaking a language that everyone can understand.”

For Clancy, cultural diversity training is one step in the process, but the training must be followed to foster a good attitude. “Staff are not legally forbidden from speaking in their own language,” says Clancy. “We can encourage staff to use English but not mandate it.”

A good attitude in terms of open communication and courtesy are especially important in labs with shared spaces. In most labs that consider themselves well-run, coworkers notify each other when equipment is needed and the shared areas are modified in order to share equipment. In these situations, the lab manager is in the communication loop.

In labs with shared spaces connected to patient care, labs have adopted a formal approach for training and coaching. “Enforcing customer service and communication are a high priority for us, and we provide training to improve customer service, phone etiquette, and communication,” says Deborah Atlas, quality and safety coordinator for laboratory medicine at Lahey Hospital & Medical Center. “We use the AIDET (A=Acknowledge, I=Introduce, D=Duration, E=Explain, and T=Thank you) method to train hospital-wide.”

For Atlas, training is not all there is to it. The lab manager plays an important role. “Basic etiquette rules seem obvious to follow, but surprisingly, they need to be reinforced,” says Atlas.

Spreading rumors is a sure recipe for fostering a bad attitude and creating a hostile work environment. Some labs have experienced the effects of the rumor mill, with employees in fear of losing their jobs, a decrease in productivity, and an increase in absenteeism.

“Curbing the rumor mill is one of our biggest challenges,” says Russell Baldwin, senior forensic scientist at OC Crime Lab. “The director tackled the problem head-on by addressing it at leadership meetings and even had the staff watch a play to demonstrate how damaging rumors can be. The rumor mill seems to have died down.”

The onslaught of cell phones and electronic devices in the lab has brought with it its own set of issues. These devices have been accepted with mixed reactions: Some staffers accept them enthusiastically, whereas others reject them as a nuisance. Whether accepted or rejected, answering cell phone calls, scrolling through e-mails, and texting during meetings is viewed as unprofessional, and walking around the labs with ear buds is not only viewed as unprofessional but also can create a safety issue.

Labs have attempted to provide etiquette rules for the appropriate use of electronic devices. “We are considering working on what we call peer coaching for the use of electronic devices,” says Daniel J. Scungio, laboratory safety officer at Sentara Healthcare. “We have created a team to discuss the use of items such as cell phones and MP3 players to bring us within the CLSI guidelines.”

Etiquette rules governing the use of electronic devices are a work in progress. Scungio states that although wide-ranging discussions are under way, a final decision has not yet been made.

Although not an etiquette issue per se, observing safety practices is a high priority from a rule-making standpoint. Good safety practices go a long way toward fostering good lab etiquette and a professional work environment.

Various options are offered for fostering safety practices

Outside the lab, key stakeholders in health care professions, government, and industry have taken lab etiquette to the next level. In association with the Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute (CLSI) and utilizing a formal consensus process, these stakeholders have developed formal guidelines for what is considered safe in a clinical lab context. These guidelines are embodied in a safety document titled “Clinical Laboratory Safety: Approved Guideline (GP17-A3).”

“These guidelines describe general recommendations for implementing a high-quality laboratory safety program,” says Glen Fine, chief executive officer at CLSI.

“They are intended to address safety issues affecting the quality of patient testing, and they reflect on the whole the agreement of key stakeholders involved in clinical laboratory medicine.”

Fine states that these guidelines address the essence of the issue of safety in clinical labs. “They are considered good lab practice in terms of safety, housekeeping, equipment care, and the use of electronic devices. However, following these guidelines is not mandatory.” Whether a lab follows the CLSI guidelines or internal guidelines, most labs provide training and coaching to their employees. “We provide training to our employees on a recurrent basis to broaden their knowledge on the recognition, avoidance, and prevention of safety and health hazards,” says Scungio. “We follow CLSI guidelines, Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) requirements, and the College of American Pathologists (CAP) regulations to train our employees. We also follow internal guidelines that are specific to our own hospital system and have morphed from CLSI, OSHA, and CAP.

“One should always consider the physical environment when thinking about safety. Developing and utilizing your ‘Safety Eyes’ can help you spot and correct safety issues as they arise, not just when you conduct safety audits,” says Scungio.

Management can play a key role in the fostering of proper etiquette and safety. “Positive relationships bloom when people know their coworkers and lab manager care and are looking out for their personal safety,” says Scungio.

Setting standards for safety procedures in university labs is notoriously difficult. The process can be challenging due to inexperienced students, busy faculty schedules, and budgets that do not allow for training outside the academic curriculum. Having an ethnically diverse population of students, faculty, and staff from outside the United States, where the standards may be different for both housekeeping and safety, adds to the challenge.

“Faculty are charged by the university with maintaining the safety of their individual research laboratories, but time is limited because of teaching, research, and other responsibilities,” says Barbara A. White, research operations manager in the Department of Forest Biomaterials, North Carolina State University. “Because of lack of supervision, lab instruments are often broken, misused, or incorrectly calibrated, and frustration builds up among students who do know how to observe proper safety procedures. The end result is a greater likelihood of an incident or accident occurring that could have been avoided if proper procedures were followed.

“We are charged with both teaching and enforcing safety procedures and must find ways to accomplish these goals in an efficient and cost-effective manner. Increasing awareness for faculty on how to incorporate safety procedures into the curriculum would go a long way in resolving the issues,” says White.

“A few years ago, our department developed a safety inspection training program. Each month for about one hour, teams comprising both faculty and students are given a checklist containing the same criteria used by ‘real’ inspectors to review our labs for safety compliance,” says White. “As the teams perform the activity, both the professors and the students learn what the expectations of U.S. regulatory agencies are and then work together to improve the culture of safety. Our compliance has improved significantly compared to where we were before instituting this program,” says White.

White states that partnering programs between industry and academia, such as the one initiated by the Dow Chemical Company, are beneficial in terms of safety procedures and lab etiquette rules. “Such programs would ensure that future scientists and engineers have not only the scientific knowledge but also the safety and the lab etiquette to work efficiently and effectively,” says White.

Fine states that there is an increased interest in lab etiquette and safety due to a common goal of improving health and patient care.

“Good etiquette and enforcing safety procedures are a genuine expression of an employer’s concern for its employees and, by extension, lead to better health care for patients.”