Flying back to my home state of Virginia from the West Coast is never fun for me. Recently, I spent a week at a conference in San Diego, and on the last day I was able to sleep in until 5 a.m. local time! I knew, though, that I would lose time flying back home, and that I would be up much later than usual. When flying back to the East Coast, the loss of hours can make you feel like you’ve fallen way behind. I’ve seen situations in the realm of lab safety that can make me feel the same way.

I was working with a group of volunteer safety ‘”coaches” in a reference laboratory, and they were telling a story about how the lab leaders gave their staff little cups of candy for Valentine’s Day. It was a nice gesture, but it turns out there were lab techs putting candy in their lab coat pockets to eat while working, and candy would turn up in drawers occasionally for the next few weeks. This, of course, was really frustrating for these safety professionals. Then, as I was giving a safety presentation, I was fielding questions from attendees. They were asking about how to deal with staff in the laboratory who do not want to wear gloves or lab coats. Really? Food in the lab? No PPE? What year was this? Had I gone back in time? Are labs still really dealing with these types of safety issues that should have been abolished long ago? Of course the answer is yes, and I know that some of you reading this are dealing with similar issues as well.

In my time as a lab safety officer, I have seen the results of working diligently to improve the safety culture in many labs. I know it can be done, but I also know it takes persistence and a daily focus on the process. I have also learned something else – the culture always improves faster when there is a team at work rather than an individual. But how can this be done successfully?

If you’re in a laboratory with a poor (or outdated) safety culture, the best place to start is at the top. Have an honest discussion with the lab manager or medical director. Express your concerns and try to find out exactly what is their safety mindset. You may figure out a good starting point that will help you move forward together to make improvements. If you are that lab leader and safety is your responsibility, then the change may need to begin with you. How are you leading safety by example? Do you wear the correct clothing (proper footwear, PPE) as you spend time in the lab setting? Your staff is watching you, and you have the power to easily be a detriment to your culture, but you can also build it up.

One benefit to a team approach is coverage. Sometimes, when I walk into a laboratory, the manager will shout to the staff, “Dan is here! Make sure you have your PPE on!” I can learn much from that approach. The manager is not on the team making sure that staff adheres to the safety policies and procedures. That makes it very difficult to sustain a solid safety culture. A safety team comprised of staff from all shifts can do a more effective job at maintaining safety. Staff should not be doing the “right things” only when the safety officer drops by, or when the manager is on site. There should be peer pressure at all times to make sure safety is a priority.

When working with lab safety professionals, I always teach that you can make a difference, even if you are the only one working on safety. One person, with persistence, can lead by example and use coaching to make positive changes. That is true even if that lab leadership isn’t working to assist you in the endeavors. However, moving out of the past – maintaining PPE use and preventing food consumption – will be an easier task if you can first build a team of assistants. Although it can start with you, safety is everyone’s responsibility, so take your team and move into the future.