A Perspective on Lab Safety
A Perspective on Lab Safety

I attended a work shop where different people were allowed to express their views on life from their generation’s perspective. One group representative said that members of the “Millennials” generation often acted as if entitled to things in life and don’t feel as if they have to work for it. A Millennial representative spoke up. She said that she did not feel entitled, but felt a victim of broken promises. She watched the generation before her live the good life- go to school, get a job, get married, buy a house, etc. – and now she was done with school, full of debt and still living at home. The economy and the world had changed, and the life she hoped for was not the one she now faced. Listening to a different perspective was truly eye-opening, and it reminded me about an important aspect of lab safety coaching.

In conversations with long-term lab safety professionals, I often hear about the constant frustrations with lab safety compliance. Staff does not wear PPE, they don’t follow safe work practices, or they don’t think about chemical or bloodborne pathogen safety. Some who oversee lab safety have become so frustrated that they have given up on coaching or talking to the people they are assigned to keep safe. That is most definitely an incorrect approach, and if you find yourself in that situation, it may be necessary to take a step back, look in the mirror, and notice that the problem could be you.

That’s not meant to sound accusatory, but if your lab is suffering from a poor safety culture, the best place to begin with a solution is in your head, and understanding that can be powerful. First, remember that each time you are in the laboratory and you see a safety issue that you ignore, you are seriously damaging the culture. Few are scrutinized more than those who manage the safety program in the lab, and if ignoring safety regulations is witnessed by staff, they will know how unimportant safety is in the department, and they will act accordingly. If you are burned out from years of battling the culture, it may be time for someone else to enter the safety role so that the culture is not damaged further.

Next, if you plan to remain the safety role, it may be time to examine your approach to staff. Instead of becoming frustrated with people when the need to coach arises, try to change your perspective. How a safety coaching episode will play out is largely determined by what you (the coach) are thinking as you approach the situation. It is important to remember that each time a staff member does not act in a way you wish or expect as it relates to safety, there are several possible reasons or influences on the situation, and all should be considered before acting.

Janet is in chemistry handling specimens without gloves. This alone could generate a range of negative feelings when you see this- anger, frustration, or even apathy. What are the possibilities? She was not trained properly, there are no gloves that fit her, she is having a reaction to gloves and is embarrassed to confess it, or gloves are kept in the store room and she doesn’t know the door combination. Any of these scenarios and more is possible. Your emotions about the situation are real, they can result from a broken promise (you’ve spoken to Janet before), judgement (she’s not a stellar tech anyway), or failed expectations (you recommended she be hired). However, you should not act on those emotions, there is little chance the coaching will go well. Approach Janet with a question that will start a reasonable, two-way conversation. “Hi, Janet. I notice you aren’t wearing gloves. What size can I get you?” Or “Janet, I see you are handling samples with no gloves and that is dangerous. Can you tell me why?” If this is a repeat situation, put the ball in Janet’s court- “Janet, we discussed glove use last week, but you are not wearing them. You told me you would. What’s going on?” Now the focus is on the important issue for you, Janet’s broken promise. The answer may help you understand her behavior, and help you to rectify the situation permanently. Remember to use a soft approach and a civil tone. Otherwise, the work of your thought out coaching will be for naught.

Everyone has their own perspective. That in no way excuses all behaviors, especially failing to follow lab safety guidelines, but understanding a perspective will go far in helping you succeed with coaching those bad behaviors when needed. Think first, always act, and be the safety role model you need to be for your department. Those are the powerful steps to a strong lab safety culture.

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