The number of laboratory scientists is rapidly dwindling. Those of the “Baby Boomer” generation have been retiring for a number of years, and even before that began, there were more laboratory job openings than people to fill them across the country. For up and coming lab employees, that means there is an ample supply of decent job opportunities in the lab world. In some cases, however, leadership roles are being obtained by less experienced people than in years past. Whether or not one has a long working history in the lab setting, one aspect of any new leadership position that will be important to grasp is management of the lab safety program. Understanding what needs to be in place as part of the lab safety infrastructure is vital to maintaining a strong culture that keeps laboratory staff safe and protected.
A high-level review of the infrastructure will help to ensure the existence of specific components that are necessary for a complete functioning laboratory safety program. If pieces are missing, an action plan should be drafted in order to prioritize the next steps needed to make the fixes to the overall safety infrastructure. Start by looking for specific components of an overall safety program, a laboratory safety manual, a safety committee, and lab safety indicators. If these items are in place and functioning as they should, the review will be brief and there will be few changes needed.
The lab safety manual
The laboratory should have specific written safety policies, procedures, and job aids. These pieces of a lab safety manual need to be separate and distinct from any hospital or facility safety procedures. Often, these facility policies are not detailed enough to provide clear direction for a dynamic department like the laboratory. Many labs utilize the facility Emergency Management Plan, for example, but a facility-wide plan rarely spells out duties or evacuation guidelines specific to lab staff. Facility Exposure Control plans (required by OSHA) often do not provide clear direction for follow up to unique exposures that may occur in the lab setting. Labs must also have their own chemical management policies since Hazard Communication programs do not meet all the regulations required by OSHA’s Chemical Hygiene standard.
The laboratory safety manual may be in paper or in an electronic format. Make sure all departmental staff know how to access the documents, no matter the format. All policies should be approved by the director, and a solid document control process should be in place. While some laboratory accrediting agencies only require a review of policies every two or three years, lab safety documents should be reviewed and revised at least annually. Many procedures are tied directly to OSHA, and that regulatory body dictates an annual review of program policies in many of its standards.
Access to lab safety policies and procedures is not sufficient. Be sure staff have been trained on all lab safety procedures and understand them clearly. Consider immediate revisions to written documents if they do not provide clear guidance and help to maintain departmental safety.
The laboratory safety committee
Another piece of the lab safety infrastructure is the presence or involvement in a safety committee. The committee oversees the operation of the laboratory safety program, and members help to manage and maintain the aforementioned lab safety manual.
If the laboratory staff is very small, rather than create a department-specific committee, the leader may play a role in the larger facility safety committee. If the lab is larger, a committee composed of just departmental staff and medical directors is advised. If the hospital or lab is part of a system, the committee should include at least one member from each lab site.
A laboratory safety committee should meet at least once a month. It is important not to skimp on meetings or cancel them on a regular basis. Let members know this is a priority for the leadership in the department. Follow a set agenda, begin and end meetings on time, and discuss items that are relevant to lab safety.
Provide education during the meetings. Do not assume that all members have the same level of lab safety background or knowledge. Reminders of safety rules and new updates make for good meeting material. Choose a different safety topic each month, and it may be a good idea to ask different committee members to present the education portion of the meeting.
Review lab incidents as part of the safety committee agenda. Each injury and exposure should be discussed as well as methods to ensure such incidents are not repeated. Look for trends and decide if a safety stand-down or a common-cause analysis might be needed. Look at other incidents as well. Discuss any chemical or biological spill events and review the appropriateness of the facility and staff response. Did staff know where to locate spill response supplies? Is further training needed? Review any responses to fire drills or other emergency codes that may be called. Again, the purpose is to make certain all know how to respond well to emergency situations as they arise.
Include a review of the results of laboratory internal and external audits as part of the safety committee agenda. Discuss any gaps noticed in the audit report and create action plans to rectify them. Teach committee members to perform audits as well. The laboratory is a dynamic and changing department, and the more people who can spot safety issues within the area, the better.
Lastly, take time during the meetings to teach members how to coach safety issues when they arise. One of the most difficult things for people to do is to confront coworkers about lab safety problems like PPE compliance, gum chewing, wearing the incorrect shoes, etc. Struggling to speak up in this way to coworkers is common, but it is of vital importance if exposures, injuries, and other consequences are to be avoided.
Keep minutes of the committee meetings, and share the information with all lab staff. Let employees know that safety is being discussed on a regular basis, and that it is a priority in the department.
Laboratory safety indicators are essential components of a solid safety program infrastructure. Much like quality indicators, this collection of safety data can be used to help determine the overall safety culture in the department. Trends and spikes in the data can help a safety leader or committee decide on the next education focus, and it can display long-term improvement so that it becomes evident that specific safety initiatives have been worthwhile.
A good example indicator includes monitoring the laboratory employee exposure and injury rates. By using the laboratory’s OSHA reportable incidents, lab leaders can compare reportable injury data to national benchmarks. The US Bureau of Labor Statistics provides reportable injury rates for clinical and other laboratories each year. Use the national rate as a target for a lab indicator, and track it each month throughout the year. While there is no benchmark data for other unreported (or minor) lab injuries, they should not be ignored. Collect data for the individual lab for at least one year, and set a local goal for reducing even those minor events causing harm to employees.
Many lab safety indicators are typically reactive data (or lagging), but tracking safety committee meeting attendance is actually a leading indicator for the lab. Looking at scored safety audit results can also be a leading indicator for labs. No matter what indicators are utilized, be sure to take action on them when goals are not reached or when downward trends are observed. Written action plans can help the lab to stay on top of safety indicator issues.
The lab safety culture
Once the “physical” pieces of the lab safety infrastructure are in place —the safety manual, the safety committee, and the indicators—it is time to shift the view to the overall laboratory safety culture. An ongoing assessment of the culture provides a boost to safety awareness for employees, and gives leadership valuable information about what safety issues in the department now need focus.
A safety culture assessment can be performed in many ways. One part of performing the assessment is by using your “Safety Eyes.” Scan the lab visually. What immediate safety issues are seen? What is hanging on the walls of the department? What types of interactions are observed between staff? What is the physical layout of the department? With practice and experience, safety committee members may be able to do the visual portion of the culture assessment quickly.
Another safety culture indicator tool is a laboratory safety audit. The results of an audit can provide much information about safety practices in the lab such as PPE use, chemical storage, and awareness of fire safety issues. If it has been determined that improvement is needed in the lab culture, begin by developing lab safety champions. These can be members of the staff, lab directors, or even the technical staff. One champion is sufficient for a start, but more can be added over time. Choose people who are willing to learn, and meet with them regularly to engage them in your lab’s culture change. Get them involved in creating lab safety games, contests, slogans, or posters. Continued awareness of lab safety is key in improving your overall culture.
Managing the overall lab safety infrastructure is a big job, and it is often only one task of many that belongs to a laboratory leader. Change occurs daily in the lab environment, and new leaders are coming aboard every day. Whether you are new or experienced, ensuring the existence of these infrastructure components will provide a great amount of necessary safety information. With it, a leader can identify the current state of safety in the department, and in time, overall improvement will come and create a safer workplace for all of the employees.