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How to Address Unsafe Behaviors in the Lab

Lab staff and leaders need to embrace the potential discomfort of confronting individuals who are demonstrating risky behaviors in the lab 

by
Lauren Everett

Lauren Everett is the managing editor for Lab Manager. She holds a bachelor's degree in journalism from SUNY New Paltz and has more than a decade of experience in news...

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In any work setting, it can be daunting to point out a peer's actions when they are impacting fellow staff and the workplace culture. So much so, that many individuals will avoid doing so all together. However, when it comes to unsafe behaviors in a lab environment, the risks of avoiding these scenarios and enabling the behavior to continue far outweigh the temporary discomfort you may feel during the difficult conversation. Here, two laboratory safety experts offer their advice on how to approach the topic of a peer's risky behavior.

Q: How can I respectfully highlight risky behaviors of peer actions who hold higher or equal levels of seniority and authority?

Dan Scungio: Most people choose not to say something when they notice unsafe behaviors in the lab because they perceive that the risks of doing so are too great. There might be pushback or conflict. When there is a “power distance” between people working together, the willingness of subordinates to say something is even less.

headshot of Dan Scungio in black and white
Dan Scungio, MT (ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ)

When it comes to safety in the laboratory, the power distance needs to disappear. In some countries, there were documented airplane crashes that occurred because culturally, the pilot held a great deal more respect and authority over other members of the crew. The power distance was large, so co-pilots who needed to give warnings were too afraid or were ignored, and disaster ensued. Where those situations occurred, work was done to change those power perceptions. That should occur in the lab as well. Unsafe practices can affect everyone in the area, not just the person performing them. Lab managers, senior technologists, and even pathologists need to be held accountable for the safety of everyone.

The way to approach someone to highlight safety issues is the same no matter who the target is. Speak to them in private, never in front of others. Keep to the facts only, never insert opinions or emotion, even if this person has been spoken to before. Explain the reasons for speaking up. The response to safety coaching is often about how that person’s behavior has not been harmful yet. Information about potential consequences is helpful. I often tell people they have been lucky to avoid harm so far, but that luck may run out. No one wants to be on that side of a safety event. 

Creating that culture of coaching safety for everyone in the lab takes some work. People need to know both how to give that coaching and how to receive it well. That takes practice, however, so if unsafe behaviors are noted, correct them right away, and do it every time.

Jonathan Klane: It’s an important question relating to two areas—psychological safety (i.e., can I speak up freely?) and safety culture (i.e., What are our group norms of safety/risk behaviors here?). Let’s explore both factors. 

Psychological safety (sometimes called emotional safety) is a well-researched area that correlates with effective teams. Amy Edmunson, PhD, and others have done quite a bit of work here.1 An effective test: how comfortable is the person at the lowest level with offering feedback on risky behaviors to the person at the highest level? 

Teams where everyone at all levels can speak up freely with ideas and thoughts that challenge the status quo are more effective, perform better, and find work enjoyable.  

headshot of Jonathan Klane in black and white
Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT

Safety culture can be thought of as how we do safety here.2 Leaders often set culture and the most frequent trait employees hope to see in leaders is leading with integrity.3 Setting an inspirational example and holding oneself accountable are effective culture facilitating devices. 

A principal investigator I worked with banned himself for a day from his lab for failing to perform the agreed upon safety norms. By holding himself accountable, he demonstrated safety culture to the other lab members (all junior to him). An effective test: if a total stranger were to observe the group’s interactions regarding safety/risk, what would they likely see and say? 

So, besides working on the above, what can you do in the moment? Speak openly, politely, with empathy, understanding, and no judgment. Dale Carnegie advised us to, “Appeal to the nobler motives” and “Give a person a fine reputation to live up to.”4 


Dan Scungio, MT (ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ), has over 25 years of experience as a certified medical technologist and a bachelor’s degree in medical technology from the State University of New York at Buffalo. As a laboratory safety consultant and a safety officer, Dan provides on-site education and safety training for labs of all sizes with a mission to help organizations create safety savvy laboratories. He also serves on Lab Manager’s Editorial Advisory Board.

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.

If you have a question for one of our industry experts, please email leverett@labmanager.com with your question and we may feature it in an upcoming article!

This article is part of Lab Manager’s Learning to Lead Q&A series. For more expert input on management, leadership, safety, and sustainability topics affecting laboratory leaders, click here.

 

References: 

1. Edmondson, Amy. The Fearless Organization: Creating Psychological Safety in the Workplace for Learning, Innovation, and Growth. 2018. Wiley. 

2. Cullen and Fein. Tell Me a Story: Why Stories Are Essential to Effective Safety Training. August 2005. https://www.cdc.gov/niosh/mining/works/coversheet359.html

3. Bolman and Deal. Reframing Organizations: Artistry, Choice, and Leadership, 6th edition. 2017. Wiley.

4. Carnegie, Dale. How to Win Friends and Influence People. 1936. Simon & Schuster.