Lab managers are often tasked with wearing many hats—driving business success, leading teams, promoting high-quality science, and ensuring the safety of lab staff. An attendee of Lab Manager’s Safety Summit asked for tips on how to oversee their lab’s safety practices while still managing all their other daily responsibilities. Two lab safety experts and speakers at the Safety Summit share their insights below.
Q: My lab does not currently have someone in a designated safety officer role. How can I, as a lab manager, prioritize safety and compliance while overseeing so many other tasks?
Jonathan Klane: This question lands firmly in safety culture. It’s advantageous to have a person dedicated to or responsible for lab safety. But even with this safety lead, safety culture still comes down to group norms and behaviors. With a poor safety culture, staff won’t prioritize safety or safer behaviors.
Culture is affected and enhanced by several traits in engagement—compassion, caring, and communicating. The way to get others on board with priorities will be to engage them all in how behaviors, habits, and rituals are significant for them as a team.1
We all perceive risks through our experiential (or affective) frame or system. If the pandemic taught us one thing, it’s that our risk perceptions vary widely and wildly. So, discuss them openly and with empathy for each other’s feelings about risk. One way is to be more “conversationally receptive” or as the ancient Stoics said, “We have two ears but only one mouth for a reason.”
People act to preserve their threats to value.2 By helping the lab group see how their threats to value affect and are affected by the group’s, can facilitate open conversations, and motivate new behaviors that lead to habits, rituals, and thus to group norms.
It often helps to start with small but meaningful habits such as donning and wearing your safety glasses or goggles. Many folks have powerful stories about getting things in their eyes or episodes with worse outcomes. Sharing these stories about both near misses and incidents where lives were affected can help spark a change in priorities and make reminding each other easier.
Ashley Augspurger: If safety is incorporated into regular processes, then lab members don't think about having to "do safety." For example, adding a hazard assessment component to your chemical review and approval process eliminates the need for a separate hazard assessment that may not get completed otherwise.
Incorporating safety into processes your lab already does also streamlines safety standard implementation. You can talk with your lab members to get ideas to accomplish streamlining safety. The additional effort to modify current processes with lab members' active participation will make safety management easier.
Jonathan Klane, M.S.Ed., CIH, CSP, CHMM, CIT, is senior safety editor for Lab Manager. His EHS and risk career spans more than three decades in various roles as a consultant, trainer, professor, embedded safety director for two colleges of engineering, and now writing for Lab Manager. He is a PhD candidate in human and social dimensions of science and technology at Arizona State University where he studies our risk perceptions and the effects of storytelling. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ashley Augspurger has a PhD in analytical chemistry with a specialty in chemical education research, is a certified industrial hygienist and a certified safety professional. She has worked in chemical and biological safety and chemical waste in academia, private industry laboratories, and agriculture research. She is the chair of AIHA's Communications and Training Methods Committee and is actively involved with the Biosafety and Environmental Microbiology Committee and the Laboratory Health and Safety Committee.
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This article is part of Lab Manager’s Learning to Lead Q&A series. For more expert input on management, leadership, safety, and sustainability topics affecting laboratory leaders, click here.
1. Thompson, Tabi. “Building Habits through Lab Safety Activities”. Lab Manager Magazine. https://www.labmanager.com/lab-health-and-safety/building-habits-through-lab-safety-activities-26739
2. Maynard, Andrew. “Thinking innovatively about the risks of tech innovation”. The Conversation. 2016. http://theconversation.com/thinking-innovatively-about-the-risks-of-tech-innovation-52934.