A Light Touch
A Light Touch

The other day I went to get a haircut (yes, even though I don’t have the hair I used to have, I still go to a barber shop from time to time). The stylist was a nice young lady, and she was good at carrying a conversation. I began to notice as she continued her work, however, that her touch was anything but gentle. She combed with vigor, leaving what I imagined were indentations on my tender scalp. At the end she hefted the clippers to trim up the hairs on my neck- I’m not entirely certain she didn’t leave scars. I have experienced haircuts in the past that were given much more gently, and the results were the same minus the mental and physical scarring. As I drove away I started to think about the applications here to laboratory safety.

In my years as a Lab Safety Officer, I have had to learn how to give feedback to those in the lab who are not following proper safety procedures. It is important. Usually if I need to speak to someone, they are in danger of becoming injured or exposed to some hazard. The safety coaching moment is necessary.

The book Crucial Confrontations (by Grenny, McMillan, and Switzler) is an excellent resource which can be used to teach how to provide important coaching in any setting. One thing I learned to remember from that book is that if someone is acting in a way they shouldn’t – if they are doing something unsafe, for example – there are at least six possible sources of influence potentially guiding the action(s). Let’s use an example: You walk into the lab and see Mary on the phone at the hematology bench with no lab coat and no gloves. Why is she doing that? Did she have proper training? Is the PPE located in a convenient area for staff to get quickly? Was Mary on her way to a break but no one else was there to answer the phone? Is Mary a non-compliant person? Is Mary following the general safety culture in the lab?

How you approach Mary here is critical. You could yell at her. You could angrily tell her to get PPE since you’ve discussed this with her before. You could tell her she will be written up. Then Mary hangs up the phone and tells you she just learned her mother has passed away. That certainly changes the scenario, and it casts a negative (perhaps permanent) pall on your working relationship. That will be difficult to change, and it will be difficult to influence Mary in any way about safety in the future. It is vital to be careful about any coaching event you have in the laboratory. Your approach affects the outcome, and much of that approach is determined by what you are thinking as you begin. A light touch in a coaching situation will produce more gains than a heavy hand. It will also build your credibility as a safety advocate in the department.

Approaching Mary is the right thing to do, no matter her situation. She is at a lab bench touching contaminated surfaces with no PPE. That needs to be dealt handled. If you ignore it, you promote the behavior, and if others witness that then you are responsible for untold harm to the overall lab safety culture. Even if Mary tells you she received bad news, it is still important to call her on her inappropriate safety behavior, especially if you have seen the behavior before - but it should be done at a later time.

Haircuts and coaching for lab safety occur in very different arenas, but performing these actions with a gentle, light touch is one way to make sure the outcome is positive. A light touch can help ensure there are no types of scars, and a good outcome in the lab helps improve the overall culture, a goal every lab safety professional should desire.

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