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How Lab Managers and Embedded Safety Professionals Can Collaborate Effectively

The two roles integrate well with many benefits to all involved

by
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...

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“Hey Jon, can I ask you a favor?”

“Hi Pat, of course, what’s up?”

“Thanks, it’s about safety. The Jones Lab wants to do some new research and needs help assessing the risks. Could you give us a hand?”

“Sure Pat, I’m happy to help. Let’s go meet with the team.”

Lab managers like Pat often need help with safety and risk. Having an embedded safety professional (ESP) can be an asset with mutual benefits. Let’s see who ESPs are and what they do. Then we’ll discuss the benefits and some possible collaborations via micro-storytelling based on real events.

Who’s an ESP, and what’s their role?

Who is an ESP? They’re typically someone with safety expertise who reports to the organizational unit that they are housed in. In academia, ESPs are common within engineering, chemistry, and facilities. In industry, they might be located within R&D, production, or maintenance. Usually, they don’t report to the environmental, health, safety, and risk (EHSR) departments or offices. ESPs work with EHSR, but not for EHSR. There are EHSR staff who work in a unit but report up the EHSR chain. They’re often referred to as “dedicated EHSR staff” rather than as an ESP. 

Why have an ESP, then? They help their unit in many ways—both obvious and out of sight. You might observe them providing guidance on a risk technique new to the lab. Other times, you might not be aware of their assistance behind the scenes on a safety-related conflict (e.g., lack of consistently wearing the required PPE). 

One measure of their prevalence and contributions that the role of ESPs bring is the ESP community of practice (COP) within the Campus Safety Health Environmental Management Association (CSHEMA).¹ * It’s still going strong with 116 members at last count and many discussion posts, webinars, conference sessions, and a workshop on the benefits an ESP brings to the organization. 

What does an ESP do? They often help, consult, and represent their unit on all EHSR-related matters. There are many benefits they bring—let’s look at a few ESP micro-stories based on many years as an ESP.

Benefits an ESP brings

“How do I assess risk?”

Imagine having your own in-house expert, advocate, and consultant—all in one person. 

A lab team’s manager asked for a consultation. “Jon, we need your greenlight to proceed with our research project from a safety and risk standpoint. But we’re stuck.”

“What’s holding you back?”

“It’s the regulations. How are we supposed to assess all the risk requirements? We don’t know them.”

“Great question. You’re not; I am. Instead of wondering about the regulations, just think in terms of what potential hazards can occur. You likely know those better than I do. Discuss those in your proposal when we meet to review it. I can figure out all the regulatory details for your team.”

“Awesome, we can do that—thanks, Jon!” 

“How are we supposed to implement this new safety program?”

ESPs figure out how to apply and carry out EHSR’s and other’s policies and requirements. How often has your lab been given a directive to comply with but without the specifics of how it will work in your lab? 

I read the email from EHSR and thought I’d better check with our lab managers. “What do you all think?”

“Jon, it’s so generic. How do we implement these new safety requirements?”

“Well, let’s figure it out. I can interpret what safety practices it’s getting at. What if I write those up for us and draft some initial ideas. Then you each can edit and add how these might work in your department’s labs. Sound good?”

They smiled and nodded. “Yup, that’d work well. Thanks!”

Potential collaborations

“I need your help—it’s rather sensitive.”

Sometimes matters are a bit delicate, needing diplomacy and private collaboration. 

I called Gil, the school’s lab manager. “Could you come over to my office to chat, please?” I asked him. He came over and we closed the door.

“So, what’s up, Jon?”

“I’ve got a researcher who needs some space so she can work alone. Can you help find some?”

“Sure, Jon, no sweat. Anything I should know so I’m prepared?”

“Good question. Let’s just say that there are some accusations going back and forth. I think we’re past the bumps and bruises phases of conflicts and into head-banging.² Keeping them separate to complete their work is in the entire lab’s best interests. Her principal investigator (PI) is fully on board.” 

“Okay, I’ve got a spare fume hood in a lab that’s currently unoccupied. It ought to work well as it’s in another building.”

“That sounds perfect. Thanks, Gil!” 

“Our software program said there wasn’t any current flowing.” 

Incident investigations and interviews often benefit from having another person help from their unit. Sometimes what those involved say is so perplexing, it takes a couple of people to help them understand reality. 

“An electrical engineering testing lab had a critical incident, Jon. No one was hurt, but they fried their test board.”  

“Okay, I’m glad no one was hurt, Phyl. Let’s go over together to find out what happened.”

Once we saw it, the bad component was easy to spot—it was charred like an overdone hot dog on the grill. “It looks like the current shorted this component out,” I said to the students. 

“No, it couldn’t have shorted out, Jon, our software program said there was no current flowing through that part of the board.”

Phyl and I looked at each other with raised eyebrows, down at the board, and back to the student researchers. I cut to the chase: “I’m no engineer. How would you explain the charred component from an engineering view?”

The students looked at each other. “Well, we don’t know. It doesn’t make sense according to the software we’re using.” 

Phyl offered a helpful thought: “Perhaps the software program was incorrect, or there was a bad connection between it and the board?” 

The students shrugged. “I guess that’s possible, too.”

Phyl turned to me. “Jon, I’ll work with the students on how to perform a critical review and root cause analysis. They’ll have learned a lot more about engineering problem-solving than if it had gone the way they expected.” 

“Thanks, Phyl, that’d be great!” 

“Your PIs rock! How could we get an audience with them?”

Safety culture represents group norms and behaviors. So, it makes sense that efforts to affect change are a team event, too. 

“Jon, I think the PIs in my school’s labs embrace safety culture. What could we do to help them along?”

“Hey Abe, your school’s faculty rock! How can we get in front of them to talk about some ideas for safety culture initiatives?”  

“Well, there’s our annual summer retreat in a few months. I can ask to have us put on the agenda.” 

“Excellent! That’d give us time to work on a few ideas that might resonate with them. Any thoughts, Abe?”

“Oh yeah, plenty! I think between your ‘risky nature’, my familiarity with our labs, and our PIs’ curiosity as researchers, we can engage them in a conversation.”

“Ha, nice pun, Abe. Yup, that sounds great. Let’s go for a coffee and chat more.”

“Awesome, thanks Jon!”

Your key takeaways and two final questions

ESPs are there to help their unit or team. They bring many diverse benefits to both their team and to EHSR. Some of these are predictable while others may not be in plain view. There are plenty of opportunities for collaborating with ESPs in your lab to further safety culture and ensure your staff’s well-being. 

Do you have any ESPs at your labs? Have you explored all the benefits to collaborating with them on your lab safety and risk challenges? 

* Disclosure: I co-started and co-led the CSHEMA ESP COP several years ago.

Benefits an ESP brings:

  • Your own in-house expert, advocate, and consultant
  • A go-between—lab staff and EHSR dept and offices 
  • Rooting and advocating for lab staff to do well 
  • Represents their needs to operate effectively 
  • Asks questions of staff and EHSR 
  • Often has greater freedoms than EHSR office 
  • Go from general to specific
  • Relationships with lab folks
  • Figure out how to implement requirements
  • Develop guidance documents for staff’s use 

Potential collaborations:

  • Consulting advice 
  • Inspections or visits 
  • A sounding board or gateway prior to a formal request to EHSR
  • Interventions, conflicts, mediating 
  • Lab designs, redesigns, or renovations 
  • Incident investigations and interviews 
  • Co-developing guidance on how to do safety or risk
  • Safety culture efforts 

References: 

1. https://www.cshema.org/index.php/get-involved/communities/communities-of-practice.

2. Goodwin and Griffith. The Conflict Survival Kit: Tools for Resolving Conflict at Work. 2007. Pearson Prentice Hall. https://archive.org/details/conflictsurvival0000good.