Safety and risk systems help us enhance and preserve our lives, so why not use a human body model for it? Metaphors can help staff relate to how we frame risk and safety and enhance our conversations.1 We can and should use the human body as a surrogate when we consider our lab safety and risk programs. We have organs, body systems, and processes that mimic our safety and risk programs in labs. It’s our internal body that functions, runs, and keeps us alive—not the external hazard recognition or risk management methods maintaining life. Our lab safety and risk systems are more than what meets the eye, heart, or brain. Let’s look at how the body is a primary model for our lab safety and risk programs.
A holistic approach
The human body model is a holistic view and approach that recognizes and incorporates the importance of the entire system—be it our body or our safety and risk programs. The body operates as one integrated organism with its systems coordinating and syncing to keep us alive, functioning, and healthy. Our lab safety and risk programs should be performing as one unified organism, too.
Think of our organs and how they represent respective aspects of lab safety and risk (see figure 1 for a whole-body perspective). Our brain is the hazard related data, the chemical inventory, any safety data sheets, and other lab information systems. Our cardiovascular system has our literal and metaphoric heart, which is where the lab’s safety culture emanates from, given it’s mostly about caring for each other. The emotion-centered amygdala is our experiential risk system driving decision-making, otherwise described as judgment under uncertainty. Our lungs are the lab’s ventilation systems, including the building HVAC and local exhausts like fume hoods, snorkels, gas cabinets, etc. The musculoskeletal system is a lab’s structural components—benches, cabinets, shelves, struts, racks, and the like. Our reproductive system innovates and creates new research or develops new products and services. And the gastrointestinal tract takes in chemical supplies and generates hazardous wastes.
Our target organs
Substances harm organs specific to their toxic effects, that organ’s physiologic systems, and often the route of entry into the body. It’s therefore called target organ toxicity—here are several examples.
Neurotoxins target our brain and central nervous system. If our brain isn’t at the top of its game, we don’t behave safely. Pulmonary toxins can destroy our lungs and respiratory system, without which we can’t breathe or thrive in a lab without breath or ventilation. Hematopoietic toxins affect our heart and blood forming systems, without which nothing circulates in the body or lab. Nephrotoxins interfere with the kidneys and hepatotoxins target the liver. Both filter out wastes, which would otherwise build up to toxic levels and do damage—in the body or lab. Teratogens can stop us from reproducing—a bad thing for sure. And how would we then generate little lab staff? There are several other target organs we could compare to lab processes.
Toxins can damage our senses as well. It’s not just noise that induces hearing loss—ototoxins can adversely affect our capacity (loudness), tonality (frequencies), or clarity (tinnitus). As a result, we might not hear lab instructions or emergency messaging clear enough to save ourselves or others. Our eyes are easily damaged by corrosives, both acids and bases. Less obvious are effects to vision due to irritation from volatile organic compounds (VOCs), ozone, and other irritants. Not being able to see clearly and focus can have devastating effects while in the lab using chemicals, sharps, etc. Besides, due to COVID-19 we can lose our sense of smell—called anosmia—from zinc, VOCs, and other lab-related substances such as drugs. And of course, our sense of balance is upset by neurotoxins such as VOCs.
Homeostasis is maintaining a balance in the body. Whether it’s our temperature, blood pressure, or electrolytes, if we stray too far out of that delicate balance, we risk damage or even death. It can double for maintaining a balance between safety dichotomies or poles—seeming opposites we often struggle with. For example, compliance versus culture, leading versus lagging indicators, being risk-averse versus risk-tolerant, and our widely varying risk perceptions on display during the pandemic.
Calories and thermogenesis
The body takes in fuel for energy and consumes it, releasing it in the form of calories by means of thermogenesis. Try surviving for long without fuel. How much energy do you have stored and available to do your lab work or that your lab needs to operate? Our safety programs require fuel in the form of human energy that produces the desired effects. We could call this “safety-genesis.” We should feed our safety and risk programs nutritious fuels to produce a healthy outcome just as we are told to do for our bodies. Some of these nutritious fuels include our emotions such as caring, empathy, and psychological safety that all facilitate improved safety culture. Others are curiosity, healthy skepticism, open-mindedness, and critical thinking. These all enable science, research, and innovating risk, perceptions, and how we communicate and improve our approaches to lab safety and risk.
The body’s fields of science
There are several scientific fields of study that mimic or inspire us to think of body systems or functions. Scientists often compare their field to a part or function of the human body. Life science, biomedical engineering, environmental science, and similarly human-focused researchers study the human body, its parts, and their processes. They are in tune with the potential negative effects of similar body structures, processes, etc.
Mechanical engineers often study body mechanics, ergonomics, human factors, robotics, exoskeletons, etc. Neurologic research often concentrates on improving long-term cognitive health and is frequently focused on other related detrimental effects on our brain, memory, and decision-making skills. Of course, those in the life sciences are focused firmly on maintaining our health. These and other comparisons are a naturally good fit for how we frame our safety and risk systems and approaches.
Lab safety and risk are all about the human body, so using the body as a model makes intuitive and logical sense. Whether it’s our target organs, how body parts or organs fit with scientific disciplines, or its internal nature as opposed to the external hazards and risks, the body is a helpful model for our lab safety, health, risk, and culture approaches. Using these metaphoric comparisons can help staff and others reframe how they think of or see our protective systems. Try it and let us know how it works.
1. Thibodeau and Boroditsky. Feb. 23, 2011. “Metaphors we think with: the role of metaphor in reasoning”. PLoS One. DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0016782. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/21373643/.