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The Chocolate Fix

Laboratory managers agree that getting scientists to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) in the laboratory is a daily struggle. After repeated violations for which the use of threats was ineffective, I decided a more creative approach was in order.

by Sandra Walker
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How One Lab's Sweet Experiment Delivered 98 Percent PPE Compliance

Laboratory managers agree that getting scientists to wear personal protective equipment (PPE) in the laboratory is a daily struggle. After repeated violations for which the use of threats was ineffective, I decided a more creative approach was in order. Following the principles of operant conditioning explained by Karen Pryor in “Lads Before the Wind, Adventures in Porpoise Training,” my company began a compliance program based on positive reinforcement with a hint of fun.

Dubbed the CIP (Chocolate Incentive Program), the program was introduced in January 2010 with the viewing of a YouTube video on lab safety ( 1lfammjk&feature=related). The incentive program was outlined with the following rules:

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  1. Anyone entering the laboratory must wear safety glasses. No open-toe shoes or food (including gum or mints) allowed at any time.
  2. Scientists working on the bench must also wear gloves and a lab coat.

Based on random inspection, every laboratory worker who is NOT found out of compliance is given a Lindt (Lindor) chocolate truffle at his desk. (Scientists spending the day working at their desks are assumed to be in compliance.) If a scientist is found to be in violation: no chocolate. Candy is handed out two to three times per week and inspections are random.

The Lindt chocolates were chosen for a number of reasons. This is an upscale brand that comes in a variety of flavors. All Lindt chocolate truffles come individually wrapped and are color coded as to flavor. Part of the “game” was the scientists becoming familiar with the colors and flavors and developing specific preferences. (An aside, when I attempted to substitute an “inferior” brand of chocolate, the attempt was met with open hostility and the Lindt were immediately reinstated.)

In addition, there are monthly draws for $25 and quarterly draws for $100 cash. (This constitutes the Random Jackpot element of positive reinforcement.) At the beginning of each month, each scientist is given three tokens toward the monthly raffle. Anytime he is not in compliance he loses a token. An additional token can be earned by having a properly labeled and maintained laboratory bench (checked during random inspections). At the end of the month all outstanding tokens go into the draw. Quarterly winners are drawn only from those lab workers who are 100 percent compliant for the three-month period. Winners are announced in a public lab meeting.

Besides the obvious rewards involved, full compliance requires buy-in from the corporation for creative funding as well as from all the managers for their daily support. We started by researching why employees were loathe to wear safety glasses. The reasons were universal: Glasses are uncomfortable and they look “dorky.” So we went online and discovered Bolle Lightweight Safety Glasses. These are French designer glasses that come “silvered” and are both comfortable and “cool” looking. They were an instant hit with the younger scientists. A little negotiation with the company (Optics brought the price down from $12 per pair to a little over $8 when we purchased in lots of 50. We added a range of other (less chic) styles as well as corporate-purchased prescription safety glasses in a variety of frames to further add to the employee choices.

We did similar studies on gloves and settled on Kimberly Clark Safeskin and Evolution One for powderless latex and Safeskin Nitriles for nonlatex. Glove comfort improved compliance.

Lab coats are provided in cotton and disposable tyvek with knitted cuffs. One improvement was to lower temperatures in the laboratories so that lab coats are not only more comfortable to wear but help scientists keep warm.

Throughout the process, the laboratory manager and fellow supervisors are vigilant in encouraging the use of PPE. Small improvements are noted and rewarded, and complete behavioral turnabout from noncompliance to total PPE compliance is quietly rewarded with a jackpot bonus.


Sixteen months after the project’s inception, the scientific laboratory staff is more than 98 percent compliant on all PPE and 100 percent compliant on donning safety glasses, based on our routine inspections. (The idea that wearing PPE would become second nature, like buckling an automobile seat belt, has proven valid.) The program is very popular with the employees who are instrumental in teaching new hires the many benefits of compliance. Peer pressure has been a major contributing factor in the success of the program. An added incentive is the biological boost that chocolate, with its mood-enhancing qualities, can provide during the mid-afternoon biorhythm low. With the timing of rewards at between 2 and 3 p.m., the lab workers are greeted by the treat when returning to their desks after a long day in the lab.

The cost to the company has risen from $50 per month in chocolate to $150 to $200 per month, as now approximately 150 chocolates are earned each week in a 50-employee, three-day rotation. (The chocolate can be purchased on sale or with bulk discount.) The overall cost of compliance is $700 in cash awards and $2,400 in chocolate per year. The savings in injuries?—Priceless.

Sandra Walker, Senior Laboratory Manager, Biogen Idec Hemophilia, can be reached at or by phone at 781-522-4162.