I recently completed a seven-month stint as an interim laboratory manager. One of my leaders asked me if the time in that role had altered my perspective about lab safety. Would I now treat other lab managers differently when I’m back to my Lab Safety Officer role? Would I be less strict about safety violations I notice? Would I be “nicer” to other lab managers when I audit now that I understand their plight better? Ok, to be fair, he only asked me the first question – the rest I made up in my head. But it was a good conversation because I had been a manager for eleven years in the past, but it had been a while, and things have definitely changed! My more recent management stint certainly did help me gain a new perspective about lab safety.
One thing I re-learned is that lab managers are very busy people. They are holding staff huddles, handling scheduling issues, dealing with upset customers, and running to meetings. They are ordering supplies (and sometimes putting them away), trying to improve quality metrics, all while trying to keep their staff happy enough to want to stay. Managers clearly need help and support when it comes to overseeing the lab safety culture. Safety officers should provide tips and tricks for managers to help them alter unsafe staff behaviors. Supply educational opportunities and offer to provide safety training for new employees. Management support of lab safety is vital, but if the manager has no time to think about it, getting that backing will not be easy.
Another lesson I learned while working as a manager is that receiving the results of the most recent safety audit may not be enough. It would be helpful to the manager to follow-up regarding the results and to provide help with solutions. If specific documents are needed, provide them rather than telling them where they may be located. If any staff education is missing, help to get it scheduled. Lab Safety should be a help to the manager and not there to make things harder. Provide assistance after an audit and before (and after) accreditation inspections as well.
I think the most important realization I had is that manager-staff relationships are more complicated than I remembered. As a Lab Safety Officer, it’s easy to develop a simple relationship with staff. Your focus can always be on safety and safety education. Your relationship is almost always on that one level. As a manager the relationship becomes more complex, the manager wears multiple hats. There is the team coach hat when the manager trains, sets expectations, and emphasizes lab ownership. There is the accountability hat which must be worn when dealing with poor performance issues, and there is the personal hat which is worn when getting to know staff and interacting with them daily.
The complexity comes in when you may need to discuss proper lab footwear with an employee, but you have to figure out how to build your relationship and earn respect from them as a leader at the same time. Do you talk about the good work they do first (so they know you respect them) and have the discussion about the mesh shoes another day? Do you ignore Joe’s ear bud because you need to ask him to fill the schedule hole this weekend?
These things may seem tricky for the manager, but there are ways to handle them. Set expectations early. It is easier to talk to staff about regulations and the rules which must be followed when you are new to the role. It can be much harder later after you have let things slide for a while. Staff are less likely to buy your stance if you haven’t expected the same things from the beginning. Talk about safety expectations in team huddles so all hear the same things. That will help you set the tone for a stronger safety culture.
Safety can never take a back seat to anything while working in the laboratory. Poor safety practices will always lead to injuries, exposures, and fewer working laboratorians. If there is a lab safety professional, utilize them in your management of the department, and take advantage of the resources they can offer. If you’re a manager and also in charge of safety, you will need to incorporate safety leadership in all that you do. Lead by example and show your staff that safety is a priority with everything you do.