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Lab Health and Safety

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Lab Inspections Involve More than You Think

How to be prepared and make the most meaningful impact for your lab

Lab managers need to inspect their labs for various environmental health and safety (EHS) purposes. These could be to identify hazards, assess risks, monitor compliance, etc. When done well, inspections can help or have unfortunate consequences when ill-performed (e.g., no stated goal, accusing/blaming, not embracing learning, etc.).

A true learning organization will likely see many benefits . Inspections are a great opportunity to relate better, teach, and help improve lab operations. Unfortunately, many inspectors and inspections miss or err on the opportunity on the human aspects to make it more useful to the lab and effective at improving conditions, culture, risk assessing, relations with safety/risk, and team effectiveness . Inspections don’t always correlate well with improvements, effectiveness, lowering risks, changing behaviors, etc.

Inspections have three main stages: preparing and planning, conducting the visit/inspection, and following up on findings, needs, and requests for help/guidance.

Preparing and planning

“If you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.” This apt quote by Ben Franklin should be applied when preparing and planning an inspection. A quick set of four questions to ask is, “Do you have access, authority, necessary training, and appropriate PPE?”

The inspection shouldn’t merely be a checklist, box checking, or an in-and-out quickly exercise. Instead, ask these key questions first. What is/are the goals/purpose – is it compliance, audit, helping, improving risk assessing, safety culture, other? Next, what will you call it? How it feels and what your results are will differ if it’s an inspection, visit, consult, audit, check-in, etc. Many lab safety professionals have moved to a more friendly name and style of inspecting.

The inspection content is likely to be hazard-focused on biosafety/biosecurity, chemical hygiene, ergonomics, fire and life safety, physical hazards, health physics (i.e., radiological hazards), and other miscellaneous industrial hygiene (IH) hazards. There are many existing checklists available on college lab safety websites. Check out some and pick one or two to adapt to fit your lab’s specific needs. Include items that apply with purpose. For example, if it’s got solvents, focus more on flammability, e.g., the limit of no more than 10 gallons out of storage. Exclude items that don’t apply – e.g., if there is no radiation source, delete that entire section, or if respirators aren’t used, delete those items. Make it work for you and the lab.

Instead of a checklist-driven inspection, use a more casual approach: try just looking around, do an informal tour, make routine observations, have engaging conversations, ask about challenges, offer to help, etc. Often, these nonprogrammed styles provide clearer insights into what’s going on and the challenges they know or don’t realize they face. Rather than the binary “yes or no” checklist questions, ask open ended ones. Remember, “If you want the truth, don’t control their answers.”

Next decisions are who and how. Will it be planned/scheduled or surprise/impromptu? On this question, Stephen Larson, IH/EHS director at Tufts University says , "[An] announced inspection is to meet with lab staff and discuss training needs and to perform informal training. The focus is on facility and equipment safety.  [An] unannounced inspection observe[s] actions and behaviors of laboratory staff. Are they wearing PPE and lab correct clothing?  I suggest four unannounced inspections and one announced per year." Decide on your purpose and its usefulness and effectiveness. Is it for OSHA compliance, the EHS department, audit reporting out, lab operations, or another purpose? And who this is helping?  Is it the researchers, scientists, staff, EHS/risk management, leadership, an audit, or others?

Conducting the visit/inspection

The general advice and approach are to always focus on their challenges, needs, requests, etc. Be helpful, ask what their needs are, and offer tips that help with operations and research, as opposed to only checking on their compliance or if they are fulfilling EHS’s needs. You should plan your arrival, entry, and introductions accordingly.

For your entry, you need proper attire and any personal protective equipment (PPE) required before or upon entry depending on the type of lab operations. Next, you should decide whether to announce yourself or not.  It may be a courtesy to announce your presence, or it may be more appropriate and kinder to let them go about their business undisturbed.

Overall, strive to not interrupt their work, flow, or attention – they’ll appreciate it then and later. If you interrupt their work, they’ll likely resent it then (unless it actually helps them avert a problem) and they’ll remember it next time.

Introductions are likely to occur unless the lab is empty or there is no reason to engage in any conversations or questions. Even if it’s planned or scheduled, it could be inconvenient to their work needs and priorities throughout the inspection. Often, if you pre-emptively admit that your visit in likely an inconvenience, out of politeness they may counter that it’s fine.

For observations around the lab, you’ll likely be able to do some on your own and need help with others. What are the items you can check on your own? You can probably check equipment (e.g., hoods, biosafety cabinets, glove boxes, chemical storage cabinets, eyewash/shower, fire extinguisher, grounding bar) and safety supplies (e.g., PPE, attire, waste containers, spill kit(s)) and operations (e.g., safe procedures, proper attire and PPE worn). Posted signs are easy to check (e.g., lab registration, warnings, how to use equipment, locating safety items, chemical abbreviations used on containers, cleaning/disinfecting schedule, daily/weekly/monthly checklists, etc.).

A few items to check that may require help include approvals, a list of lab members, training materials, and equipment service records. During your departure, thank them for their help, overview your observations, findings, suggestions, and their questions. There should be no surprises afterwards when they get your report.

Following up on findings, needs, requests for help/guidance

Make it easy to read and glean what’s important (e.g., bottom line up front, use colors, icons, highlights, infographics, etc.). Compliment them where you can (e.g., “Those are great checklists you created!”). Offer helpful suggestions (e.g., “Try asking lab members which safety glasses they like best for more consistent compliance.”)

If there were items you could take care of, do so or indicate your follow up (e.g., “Our hazardous waste tech will drop off a new spill kit tomorrow.”) Specify what gaps exist and what they need to do with helpful details (e.g., “Allyson’s cut from slicing could be prevented by using a block of foam to hold the loose razor blades.”)

Indicate if, how, and when you’ll follow up with them (e.g., “I’ll be sure to stop by within a month to see how you’re doing.”) Then do so and make it a helpful, congratulatory, and fun visit (e.g., bring a certificate of most improved lab).

Key points

How you plan, prepare, perform, and follow up are all key aspects linked to greater success. Often more frequent, spontaneous, casual, and helpful visits are the most useful for the labs. Provide a timely, specific, and helpful follow-up. Focus on striving to help them be more effective at meeting their lab safety/risks and operational needs and goals. Finally, always celebrate, publicize, and promote their successes.