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The Second Annual Laboratory Safety Survey

Given the current economic climate, most employers are probably looking to save on operations and improve their bottom lines. Usually they begin by trying to increase efficiency, or “trim the fat,” as the saying goes. And those of us who work in the area of health and safety know that we are usually prime targets.

Vince McLeod, CIH

Vince McLeod is an American Board of Industrial Hygiene-certified industrial hygienist and the senior industrial hygienist with Ascend Environmental + Health Hygiene LLC in Winter Garden, Florida. He has more...

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Numbers Don't Lie

Given the current economic climate, most employers are probably looking to save on operations and improve their bottom lines. Usually they begin by trying to increase efficiency, or “trim the fat,” as the saying goes. And those of us who work in the area of health and safety know that we are usually prime targets. But as health and safety professionals, we also know that we add tremendous value—that by preventing just one serious accident and workers’ compensation claim, we have more than likely saved the entire annual cost of the health and safety program. Our hope is that the annual health and safety survey will show employers and management how they stack up to their peers and demonstrate that a sound health and safety program goes hand in hand with successful business.

It seems with today’s technology we are bombarded with surveys. We are hit with customer satisfaction surveys, opinion polls and product review requests every time we do anything. The oversaturation can instill boredom or a sense that surveys are meaningless. But well-designed surveys can provide stimulating and useful feedback, especially when participation is high. This is why we want to thank all the readers, more than 500 of you, who took the time to complete the survey. The importance of workplace safety cannot be overstressed, and it appears most respondents are serious about health and safety. Take a look at our latest survey results and you will agree that numbers don’t lie.

Respondents’ demographics

Right out of the chute, we are ecstatic that responses increased by more than 25% over last year, from 416 to 529. Most of the respondents (just over half) for this year’s lab safety survey were again from the supervisor, director or manager level, with a majority (19%) working in research and development. Chemists and scientists were the next largest group (10%), followed by an even mix of technicians, QA/QC managers, safety managers, engineers and principal investigators/ professors. Combined with R&D, operations, technical services and QA/QC made up 65% of respondents’ job functions. The next 20% worked in clinical research, teaching, regulatory activities and safety management.

In our inaugural survey last year, the type of organization or industry with the largest representation was industry research labs, with 30%. This year that number was down to 15% and the shift was to academic research labs (22%) and other (23%), which looked to be mostly clinical labs. Government, contract and private research labs remained about the same as the previous year, at around 18%.

Which best describes the type of research organization or market/industry you currently work in?

Industry Research Lab 15%
University/College Research Lab 22%
Government Research Lab 8%
Contract Lab 7%
Private Research Institution 3%
Clinical Research, Hospital/Medical Lab 18%
Manufacturer (New Equipment) 3%
Other 23%

Another major change in this year’s survey was a significant increase in the number of larger organizations responding. More than 80% of respondents were from organizations with more than 500 employees. The biggest increase was for entities with between 10,000 and 50,000 employees, with a jump of 5%. Interestingly, the makeup of the individual labs remained the same, with 44% consisting of 10 or fewer workers and another 23% with fewer than 25 employees.

How many people work in your lab?

1 - 10 44%
11 - 25 23%
26 - 50 13%
51 - 100 10%
More than 101 10%

Documentation and designated health and safety contacts

One interesting response concerned distinguishing between a chemical hygiene officer and a lab safety officer. Only 60% of respondents indicated the lab had a designated CHO (which was about the same as in the 2010 survey), yet 80% said they had a lab safety officer. The two are more than likely synonymous, and since OSHA requires a CHO, perhaps we should pay attention to our titles.

Another indicator of a favorable safety culture is that nearly 80% reported that standard operating procedures are written for each lab task. This is further strengthened by the percentage that agreed or strongly agreed that all MSDSs were available in the lab (96%) and that a complete chemical inventory was kept up to date (83%).

The final piece of documentation supporting a solid safety culture is training. We saw a jump of seven points in the area of safety training (chemical, lab safety, etc.) with 95% reporting that training is conducted. In addition, 94% replied that employees have received accident and spill response training, an increase of 8 points over last year’s survey.

Safety survey specifics

The best way to keep safety on the minds of lab employees is to conduct periodic lab safety audits or inspections. Nearly 90% of respondents answered positively to this question, and 88% indicated that inspections are done annually or more frequently. Self-inspections are very useful in refreshing safety for lab workers and finding issues before they develop into an accident, spill or worse.

In addition to the increase in overall responses (which are very much appreciated), the most encouraging trend was that responses to specific safety questions showed positive increases in every instance, ranging from one to 22 points. Does this mean the survey is having an effect on safety in the research laboratory? We certainly hope so.

The areas with the biggest gains were proper labeling for lab refrigerators (22%), performing hazard evaluations and exposure assessments (16%), installing proper signage for compressed gas storage rooms (15%), and proper handling of sharps (12%). And for comparison, those with the smallest increases were use of protective gloves and availability of fire extinguishers (1% each) and use of protective clothing (2%). To be fair, the areas with the smallest gains were already the areas with the highest positive responses (99%, 97% and 97%, respectively) so there wasn’t much room for improvement.

It is interesting to note that the three areas with the largest gains in positive responses are still the areas with some of the lowest positive scores. Proper labeling for standard (non-explosion-proof) refrigerators is at only 66%, warning signs for compressed gas storage rooms is at 67%, and conducting hazard evaluations and exposure assessments is at 79%. So there is obviously need for improvement, and we should not rest on our laurels.

In summary, we believe safety in our research laboratories is improving. As indicated by the survey, responses were very positive and for all our questions there were increases compared to the previous year. We hope all lab managers and employees will take a look at the safety survey results and use them to instill a safety philosophy in the lab. The more people we get to “think safety,” the better our labs will be.

Change in Lab Safety Practices from 2010 to 2011