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Lab Health and Safety

Scientist holds up test tube while conducting experiment with two colleagues
A robust safety culture won’t develop on its own. It requires agile and engaged leadership by the lab manager.
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Embracing Safety Leadership

Eight values to be an effective safety leader

When Ed Donley was the CEO of Air Products (1978–1986), he announced that safety was more important than anything, including profits, sales, production, and research. He instituted practices that made safety the first agenda item in meetings, a condition of employment, and included safety objectives in performance reviews. This demonstration of priority removed excuses and ensured that all safety-related items were given sufficient consideration. 

One of the most important responsibilities for a lab manager is keeping everyone—staff, students, scientists, researchers, and visitors—safe while they perform the work of the lab. The best way to improve lab safety is to actively develop a robust safety culture, spot hazards, communicate potential risks to staff, and learn from and adjust to new situations that arise in the lab. A robust safety culture won’t develop on its own. It requires agile and engaged leadership by the lab manager.

While there are many aspects to lab safety, there are eight elements over which lab managers have significant impact. Committing time and effort to each component will enable the lab to improve both its safety culture and performance.

Drive safety as the top priority

As demonstrated by Ed Donley at Air Products, keeping lab staff healthy and safe needs to be the top priority for the lab and for the lab manager. People can’t focus on the work if they are concerned for their health and safety. Even without such engaged leadership, lab managers can drive safety as the top priority by having regular conversations and sharing stories with staff about safety, including safety as an item in all lab meetings, and insisting that safety be considered as a foundational aspect of all work.

Ensure safety training and equipment get the priority they need in the lab budgets. A robust safety program requires staff time to read, understand, and create effective documentation, share observations, help each other, and receive training around potential hazards. Ask staff about their needs to improve the safety of the work. 

Active participation

Lead by example. Author Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “What you do speaks so loud, that I cannot hear what you say.” Staff will learn more from your actions than from your words, especially about lab safety. Ensure you follow all safety and risk policies and practices. Please remember that staff are constantly watching you, listening to you, and learning from you. If you take shortcuts on safety, you are demonstrating that safety isn’t always your priority. Engage staff in discussions about safety and risk with everyone. Ask questions about what you observe, and answer questions about priorities and safe practices. Staff understand that the things you discuss with them are the top priorities. 

Expect everyone to respect the risks encountered in the lab. Don’t tolerate inattentive practices that can lead to incidents, injuries, or exposures. Act when you see inappropriate safety or risk-related behaviors. Address issues promptly and work with staff to resolve them.

Create habits

Part of developing a robust safety culture is creating safe habits in the lab. Unfortunately, most scientists or researchers have little safety or risk training until they join an established lab. They likely didn’t bring the right level of safety habits with them when they joined the lab, so those habits need to be created and nurtured.

The Air Products safety program builds self-discipline and a proactive safety culture through a program of enforced activities, leading to habits, building individual values, and ultimately generating their safety culture. The lab manager needs to set priorities and demonstrate expectations and preferred activities to begin developing safer habits. Examples of enforced activities include always wearing proper attire and personal protective equipment (PPE) in the lab, ensuring safety redundancies, consistent safety inspections, no food or drink in the lab, and no chemicals in the office. Risk-reducing habits need to be consistently enforced and reinforced.

Active participation in risk-reducing activities allows lab managers to build more safety habits. Asking questions and being open to answering staff questions about why the safety practices and expectations are in place will facilitate an ongoing dialogue and build the relationships as well as culture. Emphasize the need to take care of one another and be willing to call a timeout on a project to explore the safety of the work by reassessing its risks. 

Train staff

There are many ways to train staff on the potential hazards of the lab. Some of the easy ways are making safety data sheets easily available, conducting internal training on common safety issues, providing safe work documentation about materials, equipment, and procedures, conducting hazard recognition exercises, and assessing risks on an ongoing basis.

Document processes

Documentation of processes, policies, and procedures is an important activity to help keep staff safe. Staff need to be trained to follow these guidelines, and the documents need to be reviewed and updated every three to five years.

Safety policies define the expected behaviors and practices around the lab. Many of them describe the required behaviors that form the foundation of the safety program. Defined procedures in the lab can be documented as safe work practices (SWP). These documents illustrate the potential hazards and provide step-by-step instructions to safely perform specified activities. The SWP will also identify any required PPE. 

More complex experiments can be safely performed by conducting and following a design hazard review (DHR), which examines the risks of a set of experiments and provides ways to safely conduct them by reducing the risks. The DHR covers the operating procedures, equipment, materials, safety considerations, and PPE required for the experiments. One common component of a DHR is a “what-if” section that asks questions like, “what if the cooling water fails?” The scientists or researchers would then think through the potential hazards and risks associated with those situations and plan for them.

Emphasize the need to take care of one another and be willing to call a timeout on a project to explore the safety of the work by reassessing its risks.

Inspect

Regularly inspecting labs, offices, and storage areas are part of a healthy safety culture. These inspections are intended to be a candid opportunity for skilled scientists and lab management to lead walkthroughs in all parts of the lab, encouraging others to look for potential hazards and reduce risks. Bringing new eyes into the lab can help identify issues that the people working there cease to see. Having the lab manager participate demonstrates the importance of safety to the lab.

Inspections need to cover all aspects of safety, including biological, chemical, radiological, physical, and ergonomic. Inspectors can document potential issues for the lab occupants to repair and resolve. Lab management ensures that all action items are completed in a timely fashion.

Measure

To improve lab safety and risk performances, it is essential to measure important aspects of the program. Some examples of key safety metrics include both leading and lagging indicators. A few examples are injuries, OSHA recordables, near misses, hazard observations, repeat inspection items, late or missing safety documentation, and problems with safety training.

Increase the awareness of safety observations, which are things that staff see around the lab that might cause a safety incident, to improve the safety performance of the lab. By noticing and addressing these seemingly small things, the work environment is safer with less risk. The same is true for addressing near misses, which are events that occur in the lab, but no one gets hurt and no equipment is damaged. Studying, understanding, and implementing preventive actions can mitigate more serious issues in the future.

Provide for emotional and psychological safety

Most labs do a good job of addressing the physical safety of staff. Another way to improve the safety culture and work environment is to include emotional and psychological safety. These involve the ability of lab staff to bring their whole best selves to work. Promoting this kind of safety environment will enable lab staff to be freer to contribute their ideas, ask questions, seek help, and be more creative in their science. Lab managers can improve this kind of safety by ensuring mutual respect among the staff, using gratitude, being humble, and listening to everyone. To learn more, look into the books The Culture Code by Daniel Coyle, and The Fearless Organization by Amy Edmondson.

Lab managers can make a significant impact on the safety of their labs by actively and purposely participating in the different aspects of the safety program. Through effective leadership, lab managers can promote safer work habits that reduce risk while raising expectations around expected behaviors in the lab. By stressing and demonstrating mutual respect, lab managers can extend the safety culture to include emotional and psychological safety.