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Six Leadership Principles for Lab Safety

How lab managers can be role models for laboratory safety

James Kaufman

James Kaufman, PhD, is the founder and president emeritus of the Laboratory Safety Institute (LSI), an international non-profit center for safety in science industry and education.

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An unfortunate reality is that many laboratories have experienced safety incidents and accidents that result in injury, or worse. To prevent tragedies from occurring, lab managers need to make safety a top priority and implement a culture of safety that everyone in the lab actively participates in. 

Changing organizational culture takes time. It’s a marathon, not a sprint, but hundreds of labs have demonstrated it can be done. During Lab Manager’s 2021 Safety Digital Summit, James Kaufman, founder and president emeritus of the Laboratory Safety Institute, shared the following six principles, adapted from James Thomen’s Leadership in Safety Management, that can help many labs develop more effective lab safety programs.

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1. Management is responsible for the prevention of injuries

William Lawrence, a prominent safety thought leader, said that because some risk is inherent in almost any activity, safety is at its core a judgment about the acceptability of risk. However, what may be an unacceptable risk to one person may seem perfectly prudent to another. The difficulty arises when employees with different risk tolerances are sitting beside each other in a lab working with volatile substances.

Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the issue of acceptable risk has become an even more pressing issue for many organizations. People have different ideas about which COVID-19 precautions are necessary or appropriate, and the choices each employee makes affect others.

Without management setting a clear policy, safety becomes a matter of personal opinion. While leaving matters to personal opinion may be acceptable when it’s a choice of which brand of toothpaste, it is not when lives and lawsuits are involved. The Frank Sinatra “I did it my way” approach usually leaves employees confused and frustrated. That’s why the prevention of injuries is a management responsibility, and that responsibility doesn’t go away just because a chemical hygiene officer is appointed or a health and safety department exists.

2. All accidents can be prevented

A defeatist, “accidents happen” mentality is kryptonite to an organization’s safety culture. If some managers or employees harbor a belief that working safely is impractical or preventing accidents is impossible, that attitude will almost certainly present itself in careless working practices.

This is not to say that all accidents will be prevented, but the stated target of any safety program should be zero for the simple reason that non-zero safety goals are unconscionable. 

3. Training is essential

Safety training is necessary for anyone working in a lab, but there are ways to make the training more engaging, interactive and dynamic. One idea is to host a monthly lunch safety meeting. For each meeting, assign someone to give a talk for 20 minutes on a safety topic, and invite all in the institution to attend. When everyone is involved, safety stays a top priority across the organization.

Today, there are all kinds of engaging safety training videos available. You can participate in live training, virtual training, or recorded training, but consistency is critical. Some regulations mandate that certain training occurs at regular intervals, so ensure that you are at a minimum meeting these regulations.

4. All hazards can be safeguarded

Hazards may be inevitable, but accidents are not. Similar to point number two, everyone in the organization needs to believe that all hazards and all emergency situations can be identified, anticipated, and planned for ahead of time.

In an emergency, we all hope we would proceed in a calm, clear-headed manner to assess the situation and identify the appropriate actions to be taken. But in an actual emergency, the people who respond with a level head are usually the ones who have already thought carefully about and prepared for potential hazards in advance.

What do you do if your clothes catch fire? Everyone knows “stop, drop and roll,” but what will you do after that? Scream? Call 911? Take off your clothes? The time to think is before the emergency, before your amygdala takes over.

5. Safety is good business

Thoughtful safety programs directly protect personnel, equipment, and product, but there are indirect benefits as well. When a company puts the health and safety of people above profits, employees feel valued and cared for, which pays off in terms of worker satisfaction, productivity, and retention. In addition, the same analytic processes, training, and reporting that are essential to good safety also improve quality control. As a result, labs that consistently demonstrate good safety performance typically have high-quality products and higher profits. On the other hand, accidents and injuries can cost an organization in lost time, equipment damage, noncompliance fines, litigation, as well as in the reputation of the organization.

A good reputation is among the top assets for most scientific organizations, emphasizing that lab safety is a non-negotiable aspect of management. A moment of carelessness can result in tragedy and the long-term loss of public trust.

6. Working safely is a condition of employment

This stance gives teeth to your lab safety program and sends a straightforward message that you’re serious about safety because you care about your employees’ lives and health. 

This approach should not be mistaken as using fear and threats to motivate people, but as a mutual understanding that if lab managers don’t respect staff health and safety, it may cost managers the privilege of working with staff, and vice versa. After all, termination for not working safely may prevent more serious consequences for everyone involved.

Three wishes

These three phrases are common wishes among many lab workers:

  • I wish our president and direct reports cared more about environmental health and safety.
  • I wish our president and direct reports were more actively involved in environmental health.
  • I wish our organization would budget more money for this.

The formula to get these three wishes granted doesn’t involve any magic. But there are four magic words: “I need your help.” Get others involved and share the responsibility. Employees can actually set the pace and make real changes in their organization, and it doesn’t have to involve a purchase order or a requisition. That’s what grows the culture of safety.

Connor Michael of the Laboratory Safety Institute contributed to this article.