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Lab Health and Safety

Two scientists wearing lab coats and masks fill out forms on a clipboard in the lab.
Acting as a role model for safety is not difficult, but it may take some practice.
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The Leader’s Role in Setting an Example for Lab Safety

Lab managers need to be persistent role models of proper safety practices to ensure staff follow suit

Judy is the new lab manager. She decides she will hold daily staff huddles rather than official staff meetings. Her first order of business is to improve the use of personal protective equipment (PPE) by the staff and to discuss proper lab footwear. During the first huddle, Judy wears a knee-length dress with sandals, and she doesn’t put on a lab coat.

Grace has been a lab manager for three years. Recently, she has prioritized her focus to handle the challenge of staff shortages. One morning, she leaves her office to ask a technologist if he can cover an empty shift next week. She walks into the lab and quickly back into the office. She passes an employee who is chewing gum and another who rolled up their lab coat sleeves while working. Grace doesn’t notice these issues as she walks by.

Pete goes into the lab to sign some forms in the chemistry department. When Lana suggests that he put on a lab coat, Pete lashes out and tells her she should not speak to a manager that way. He tells Lana if she mentions anything again, he will give her a written warning.

Whether they realize it or not, leaders in the laboratory have a direct effect on the departmental safety culture. When a leader fails to be a safety role model, they damage the overall attitudes toward safety, even if they do not intend to have that impact. Employees take their cue from the manager or leader about their approach to safety. If the leader does not pay attention to it, the staff will follow suit.

How to be a leader in lab safety

Acting as a role model for safety is not difficult, but it may take some practice. There are different methods to use to make positive changes. In the first example above, Judy wants to be a good manager, and she recognizes that there are safety concerns in the lab. However, a leader should always model the behaviors they want to see. In this instance, if huddles are to be held in the laboratory, PPE should be utilized by everyone present, even the manager. If a lab leader enters the department throughout the day, they should wear lab-appropriate footwear. These simple acts of modeling proper safety behaviors take no extra time, but they go a long way toward showing staff where safety stands in the leader’s priority list.

Managers can often do great damage to the safety culture, even unintentionally, by ignoring safety issues. In the second story, Grace is focused on staffing. She may be an expert in lab safety, and safety may be a top priority for her, but her act of ignoring issues sets the culture back. It sends the message to all staff that those issues are not important to Grace, so they will not, in turn, be important to them.

“There is no value in being able to notice a potentially dangerous situation if nothing is done to rectify it.”

Sometimes, lab leaders are not trained to see safety issues in the department. These managers should work to develop their “safety eyes” so that spotting issues becomes second nature. Begin by using a checklist to look at specific areas of safety each week. For example, during the first week, observe staff shoes and PPE. Pay specific attention to what is worn and how it is used. The next week, focus on chemical labeling and storage, the third week, look at departmental signage, etc. If a leader takes at least a week to focus on one safety area at a time, it will become easier to spot problems, even while performing other job duties. 

The second important part of being able to see safety issues is fixing them. There is no value in being able to notice a potentially dangerous situation if nothing is done to rectify it. Most physical safety issues should be corrected immediately so that no one is harmed because of them. Remove the floor mat that curled up and has become a trip hazard, or close the cabinet door that someone left open. If other fixes will take longer (i.e. a frayed electrical cord), be sure to block off the unsafe area or take the equipment out of service. If unsafe behaviors are observed, correct staff immediately, but do it appropriately. Never correct an employee in front of others so that they would be embarrassed or humiliated. Correct unsafe acts in private, and remember to praise safe habits in public when possible.

Anyone can be a leader when it comes to lab safety

In the final story, Pete decides that his role as the manager means he is in a higher-level position than his staff. He chooses to establish what is known as a “power distance” between him and his subordinates. While a high power distance culture may be useful for some leaders to get overall compliance from employees, it can be detrimental to a strong culture of safety. 

The airline industry realized years ago the dangers of a high power distance between pilots and co-pilots. In certain countries, the culture dictated that the pilot was in command, and he should not be questioned by the co-pilot. When it was recognized that air disasters occurred because the co-pilot failed to speak up or because the pilot refused to listen, the industry as a whole worked to lower the perceived power distance.

For the sake of safety, this needs to happen in the laboratory as well. The manager can help to control and lower the power distance if it seems high. Begin by having discussions with the team and assure them that it is acceptable for anyone to speak up about safety issues in the department. When it comes to safety, everyone in the area should be seen as a peer, and all peers need to be open to coaching when necessary—that includes laboratory staff, processors, technologists, managers, and directors. 

Another way laboratory leaders can elevate the safety culture and show that safety is important is to generate staff involvement in departmental safety processes. Appoint staff to complete regular safety rounds to raise awareness in certain areas like chemical hygiene, bloodborne pathogens, fire safety, etc. Have staff take turns presenting a safety success story at the start of each huddle or meeting. Create a lab safety committee comprised of various team members and assign them to awareness activities such as making safety posters, games, or contests.

Safety as a top priority

Every lab manager gives their safety program a different priority level. While the safety culture tends to be stronger when the leader gives it consistent attention, it is important to understand that individual laboratory staff can still make a positive difference in the overall culture, even if not supported by the manager. It is important to recognize that one person supporting the safety of the department is not an ideal situation, but that one person can still make a difference using consistency and acting as a role model.

There is hope for Judy, Grace, and Pete. Judy may learn that modeling safety habits is more important than wearing fashionable clothing. Grace may improve her safety eyes so that she addresses gum chewing and PPE issues as she goes through the department. Pete may understand that while he is in a leadership position, he is still prone to unsafe acts, and it is acceptable for others to coach and correct him. Laboratory leadership is an awesome responsibility, and managers must learn to balance multiple operational details in a single day. Incorporating safety practices such as modeling, paying attention to details, and lowering the perceived power distance can be powerful tools that ultimately keep employees safer and more productive in the laboratory.