The safety officer walked into the satellite laboratory and saw an employee scrolling through social media on her cell phone. Another employee was wearing mesh sneakers and chewing gum in the department. In the storeroom chemicals were stacked on high shelves and the aisles were blocked with empty boxes. The safety officer had come to perform an audit, but it was clear in a minute that the safety culture here was not great. Visual cues are a fast way to see that no one is paying attention to safety, but there are other methods as well, and it’s important to use them. Not paying attention to safety has consequences.
Picking up on visual cues is not a talent you should expect to perfect without practice. It takes time and focus to be able to immediately recognize safety issues. Lab leaders get the blame for not paying attention to safety lapses in the department, but when they are in the department conducting the day-to-day operations, being adept at noticing those issues is likely not intentional. That said, if you are in charge of safety or are in leadership, learning those skills to notice visual problems is key to the overall task of paying attention. If you walk into a laboratory and see the things described above, it is time someone started paying attention to safety. Practice using your “Safety Eyes.” Look for PPE issues for a week, then move onto chemical safety issues, then electrical safety, etc. Focus on one area at a time, and you will hone your skills and be ready to notice visual safety issues.
A second sign that there is a safety culture problem is a lack of response to safety audits. If there is no follow-up to safety audits, then there is no point in performing them. The person who completes the audit should write a full report and it should be submitted to the appropriate stakeholder, usually the manager or director, as soon as possible. A delay in results makes the audit seem less impactful. Once the audit results are turned in, provide a deadline to lab leadership for responses. Make sure the report has a space for responses to any safety concerns documented. The audit program should be set up such that it is required for the manager to document all responses and submit to the safety officer within a given time frame. If there is no requirement to respond, it is unlikely management will pay attention to the audit, and in turn lab safety will be ignored.
Increasing incidents and accidents in the lab are another indicator that nobody is paying attention to safety. The lab technologist using the cell phone in the department became ill with a bacterial pneumonia. The employee wearing mesh sneakers dropped a dirty needle and it went into his foot. A third employee reached up to grab chemical reagents from the shelf, but the container opened and splashed into her eyes. While it seems unlikely that all of these injuries and exposures would occur at the same time in that unsafe lab described above, each event is certainly possible. Ignoring safety will definitely lead to an increase in harm to employees, something that should be avoided at all costs. If departmental safety indicators show an increase in injuries, exposures, spills or other safety events, a review of lab safety practices is overdue. Be sure to focus on safety before these unwanted consequences arise.
If you notice any one of these symptoms of poor attention to safety in your department, stop what you are doing right now and think of at least one way to create a solution to the problem. If you notice all three signs in your lab, you have a larger problem, and it will require planning in order to make changes. Making safety a focus in a lab where it has not been done traditionally can be a challenge, but it can be done. Recruiting safety champions and leaders, providing new education, and communicating regularly with staff lets them know this topic has importance in the department. Fix safety issues that you notice immediately, and show the employees that keeping them safe should always be your priority and theirs. That new focus will affect the entire department, and it will improve all aspects of your lab safety program.