Can’t Touch This
Can’t Touch This

In the realm of laboratory safety, we’ve come a long way regarding our understanding of bloodborne pathogens, and it has changed our behaviors over the years. No longer is it the norm to eat or drink in the lab. Newer staff are not quite sure what mouth pipetting is, and when it is explained to them, they are horrified. Phlebotomy without gloves? Unthinkable! We’re on the right road, but I’m afraid there is still work to be done.

The issue of contaminated surfaces in the laboratory is one that needs more attention or explanation. Most (if not all) surfaces in the lab area should be considered contaminated, and they should only be touched or handled while wearing gloves. That includes lab telephones and computers. Often lab staff will quickly type something or pick up the phone on devices that were previously handled with contaminated gloves. That means the potential for bloodborne pathogen infection is increased exponentially.

When I speak to someone as it occurs, I often hear things like, “I just got here and the phone rang,” or, “I just had to verify this one result before going on break.” In today’s lab world where productivity, turnaround times, and short staffing are key issues, those sentiments may seem valid, but they are not safe. Paying attention to these details becomes more critical as labs get busier. Mistakes become more likely, and these errors can have career-altering consequences. If you are passing through the lab and are told the phone call at the bench is for you, take the extra steps to don a lab coat and gloves for your protection and potentially that of your loved ones.

It is acceptable to have an uncontaminated area in a lab space. For instance, you may have a work space that is separate from other contaminated areas and where no specimens or chemicals are stored or handled. It is considered appropriate to label the phone and computer as ‘clean’ so that they could be used without gloves. If that is the case, however, that means that gloves would never be used in that area. You can’t have it both ways in any area- either the item is contaminated in the lab or it is not.

I have also heard the argument that countertops and phones are often decontaminated. That is important, and work spaces should be disinfected at least once per shift and when spills occur. Use a bleach solution for this process.  It is also a good practice to disinfect phones, computers, and other surfaces such as chairs. This disinfection does not, however, mean that surfaces can be touched with ungloved hands. There is no way to be sure complete decontamination has occurred, and from an inspector’s standpoint, they see staff touching things that simply should be touched while using PPE. You are still in a laboratory with bloodborne pathogens, and regulations require you to be protected at all times.

The use of cellular phones or other personal electronic devices is very common in labs, and it is a practice that should not occur. Good infection prevention practices dictate that it is unsafe to handle cell phones with gloves (or even without) in the lab setting. There are many social media posts from labs across the country where photos are posted, photos taken with staff cell phones. It’s clear the risk of infection and contamination is not realized. Lab safety guidelines forbid these phones from being in the lab, but some have opted to allow staff to carry the phones on their person. If the phone vibrates, the owner must remove PPE, wash hands, and leave the department before answering. These are the only sure ways to prevent infection. A contaminated cell phone can have unfortunate health consequences for the lab staff and their family.

Safety in the lab has indeed improved in the last 30 years, but other changes have occurred as well. New technology brings new safety challenges, and updated student training brings new and different understanding of the dangers of bloodborne pathogens. The consequences of poor safety habits have not changed. Lab acquired infections still occur every year, and they should be avoided at all costs. Teach your staff about bloodborne pathogens and how they can be transferred from surface to surface- and how theses sometimes deadly pathogens can infect their lives- literally. If we continue to educate, we can keep making headway on this safety journey and make another noticeable difference for the next generation of laboratorians.

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