In a recent laboratory poll about Personal Protective Equipment, 85% of respondents said their biggest issues had nothing to do with selecting PPE, purchasing it, or training staff. The biggest issue they deal with on a day-to-day basis is PPE compliance – getting people to protect themselves when there is a potential for exposure to bloodborne pathogens or chemicals. Just read that sentence again, it’s a bit of a tough pill to swallow when written that way. Lab Safety Professionals have difficulty motivating people to stay safe by using PPE.

I have often said that when it comes to safe lab practices, staff are usually motivated by education about consequences, preventing financial penalties, or avoiding getting into trouble (written up). Not everyone agrees with those factors, but the issue is certainly complex. In the absence of a motivator, there are many reasons why unsafe behaviors are practiced in the lab. For PPE, the issue may be a lack of PPE or a lack of the correct size. It could be that it is not conveniently located. Making it easy for people to do the right thing is a powerful tool to gain safety compliance. Beyond that, there may be cultural or behavioral issues. When someone does not behave in a way that is expected, studies show that there may be at least six reasons why that is occurring, possibly many more. A poor lab safety culture will usually lead to PPE non-compliance. If staff see leaders and co-workers not using PPE and not caring about that problem, they are likely to follow suit eventually.

In order to improve PPE compliance in the laboratory, the first step is to determine the scope of the problem. Does the issue occur with all staff, on every shift, and in every department, or is it localized? If the problem is limited, focus your fix on that group. If the issue is systemic, start by making sure that PPE is available and easily accessible and that staff has had proper training.

The Lab Safety Professional working on the compliance issue must be a role model, whether or not you are in a true leadership position. A role model wears PPE whenever working in the department, they wear proper shoes, and they encourage others to do the same. If a safety leader sees an issue, there is a responsibility to say and do something about it every time. Once you ignore an issue, others will notice, and your credibility as a safety leader will be gone. It’s hard to repair that kind of damage, and fewer are scrutinized more than the safety leader in the department! Let staff know that you will say something about PPE non-compliance issues each time you notice it. If staff understand that, compliance will occur over time.

It may seem difficult to be the only person in the department who is focused on employee safety. There may be no support from management, and that can seem overwhelming. However, one single person who stays focused on improving compliance with PPE and other safe practices will make a positive difference in the lab safety culture. It may take time and patience, but it can be done, and eventually, others will join in your efforts. Education is important- be sure all staff are aware of the potential consequences of poor safety habits. Use posters and e-mail to communicate to staff and to raise safety awareness. PPE non-compliance is not an unsolvable issue, but it is one that needs attention.