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Lab Health and Safety

The green-gloved hands of a lab worker hold two beakers (one with red liquid and one with yellow liquid) on a lab bench with broken glass nearby.

Looking Beyond Training for Accident Prevention in the Lab

Training is most effective before an incident occurs

Tabi Thompson

 The goal is zero incidents in the workplace. However, employees are imperfect, and incidents will happen. We can only hope that when they occur, they are minor. 

No one wants an incident to happen. Not only because someone could be injured or killed, but also because incidents mean that paperwork is filed, work is slowed, morale decreases, and money is lost. However, safety incidents have the potential to be a significant learning opportunity. When a company has a healthy safety culture, a root cause analysis will help highlight the areas for improvement and increase safety. Management has a responsibility to their employees to not just gather the low-hanging fruit during incident investigations, but to dig deeper to find the best solution or improvement to keep their employees safe. A lack of training is often blamed for an incident occurring; this is low-hanging fruit. Safety training is incredibly important, but when used as the primary resolution for an incident investigation, it is largely unhelpful and unlikely to prevent similar future incidents.

Getting to the root of the problem

Incident investigations are time-consuming and involve asking difficult questions about an uncomfortable situation. However, when they are done well, they have the power to prevent injuries and save lives. There are three common obstacles that lab managers fall prey to when performing an incident investigation: playing the blame game, assuming that there is only one cause, and seeking easy or weak remedies.

The Swiss cheese model shows that multiple, smaller solutions working together can be just as effective as a single, larger, and likely more expensive, solution.
Adapted from image by James Reason, 

Incidents are a thorn in the side even when no one is hurt. It's extremely easy to try to pin the blame on someone instead of asking one very important question: “What could we have done differently to prevent this from happening?” Instead of looking for who to blame, try approaching the problem with the same curiosity you would when facing another problem in the lab. Just like problems in the lab, there is rarely one solution. There can be many corrective actions to an incident investigation. As we have seen during the pandemic, the Swiss cheese model of risk management proves that many small remedies can make up for the lack of a single large, and likely expensive, cure-all. Finally, lab managers must avoid the weaker or easier solutions. If the investigation ends by claiming that human error is at fault, and the corrective action is simply more training, it's only a matter of time before the incident happens again.

Training cannot solve human error

“The most effective risk-reduction strategies involve redesigning systems to make them more resistant to human error,” says ISMP, an organization devoted to preventing medication errors in the health care community.1 A hierarchy of controls of occupational hazards illustrates this concept perfectly. The most effective methods of preventing incidents focus on the hazards, while the least effective methods focus on people. Human error is inevitable, so “strategies that rely heavily on human memory and vigilance are much weaker” than finding ways to eliminate, reduce, or isolate the hazards. If a hazard can't hurt a person even when they make a mistake, then the method of prevention is substantially more successful. NIOSH's Prevention through Design initiative encourages companies to consider ways to design labs or processes to eliminate or reduce hazards. Keep in mind that it is easier, and cheaper, to make design decisions before a lab or process is in place rather than making changes later. While training employees is incredibly useful and important, when it comes to preventing incidents, training isn’t an effective solution to a safety incident.

What does effective safety training look like?

OSHA dictates that the “best training programs are accurate, credible, clear, and practical.” Ironically, the characteristic that is the least straightforward is that training programs should be clear. What’s clear to one person isn’t necessarily going to make much sense to another, so how do you ensure that your training is effective? Here are some tips to build a more effective training program.

Training should be easy to understand

True clarity can be extremely challenging, but there are ways to make it easier. Training material should be written in plain English (or the everyday language of the majority of employees), and lack complicated jargon. If the training will be taken by employees of a wide range of educational backgrounds, ensure the training is written so that even the employee with the least education will understand it. Furthermore, don't assume that the only barrier to understanding is strictly literacy of the language. Language barriers exist in many forms, such as regional or country dialects, uncommon references, or learning disorders, like dyslexia.

Use a variety of training techniques

“The most effective methods of preventing incidents focus on the hazards while the least effective methods focus on people.”

Variety isn’t only the spice of life, it’s crucial for training a diverse workforce. Perform a simple Google search, and you'll find a generous selection of training options. Slide decks may be easier, but they also tend to be more boring, don't allow for employee questions, and require readers to not only understand but also read the writing. Other options include training videos, instructor-led training, hands-on training, group activities, game-based learning, and more. Try not to get into the habit of repeating the same training the same way multiple times in a row, especially if you have an experienced workforce. By providing the same training in a multitude of ways, employees are more likely to pay attention and retain the information, which inherently makes the training more effective.

Devote time for training

Time is money. While safety training may seem like a waste of time when you are under a deadline for a project, remember that devoting time toward safety training takes far less time than dealing with an incident, especially if the incident involves an injured employee. “No one gets paid for not having accidents; they get paid for producing goods,” says Steve Ludwig of Rockwell Automation. While harsh, it’s true. Employers don’t pay their employees to be safe; employees are paid to be productive. As such, the only way for lab managers to ensure their employees take safety activities—and especially safety training—seriously is for lab managers to give safety the same priority as other things, like meeting deadlines and quotas. Lab managers can’t just care about safety when something goes wrong; they must show constant vigilance to ensure safety incidents don’t occur. 

Invest in your employees’ continued education

Even before the pandemic, employees felt expendable. “Most individuals desire a level of satisfaction with what they are doing,” writes Kyle Shobe from Missouri State University.  People spend too much time at work for it to not be fulfilling and/or enjoyable. Management that invests in an employee’s continued education not only contributes to job satisfaction for their employees, but that investment can also lead to in-house job expertise and safety for the company. Send an employee to an instrument manufacturer’s site for hands-on training and your employee will likely come back with information about how to use the instrument more effectively, how to correct common problems, and how to use the instrument more safely. That same employee will feel valued because they know their new knowledge is now an asset to the company. The return on investing in your employees is well worth it.

Henry Ford once said that “the only thing worse than training your employees and having them leave is not training them and having them stay.” Safety training and continued, job-specific education are tools that can help show employees their safety and career development are valued by lab managers and the company. However, training and education programs are most useful as preventive tools rather than as corrective actions. Instead, the best corrective actions are focused on eliminating or reducing hazards. A company that eliminates hazards doesn’t have to simply hope its employees remember the safety training in order to remain safe. Likewise, employees who have fewer concerns can focus more of their attention on their job and can be more productive.