Flying the Lab
Flying the Lab

The airline attendant went through her safety routine as usual. As usual, very few people paid attention. Many had heard it all before, or they were reading, napping, or talking. It made me wonder- what would really happen if there was a problem with this fight? Would people really know what to do? Would they know where to get their life jacket if they had to find it? What about those people in the exit rows- would they be able to operate those emergency doors? Those safety concerns reminded me of my own issues in the lab setting.

Lab staff do not want to hear about lab safety every day. It’s not an exciting topic, and they have bench work and other tasks on their minds. But would they know how to handle an emergency situation? Could they find the necessary equipment easily and would they know how to use it? Making sure staff is ever-ready in the face of an emergency incident is important, and there are ways to make sure that happens.

Initial training is important. That training should include a review of written safety policies as well as a walk-through to show people the location of safety equipment. Fire extinguishers, eyewash stations, emergency showers, and spill clean-up kits should all be part of that lab safety tour. Once that safety orientation is complete, more in-depth training should occur. Provide demonstrations of the use of safety equipment. Although not required, hands-on operation of a fire extinguisher provides the best training and helps staff remember what to do in a real fire event. Test eyewashes and showers to show how they work. Perform spill drills to make sure staff can access supplies and efficiently act in a spill event.

Even after all of this is done, more can be provided in the lab to ensure that people will be ready for safety incidents. Provide adequate signage. All fire-fighting equipment should be designated by signs, and that is usually required by code. Eyewash stations and showers should also have signs indicating their location. Spill kits need to have signs as well- never assume staff are always aware of the location of such necessary items. Signs can help to shorten the time needed to respond in lab emergencies.

The laboratory should have its own disaster response plan. Make sure staff know how to access the plan and that is written so it can be followed easily. A disaster plan should be written using an all-hazards approach. In other words, the plan should be usable no matter the type of incident that would occur. It is always best to consider disasters that are likely to occur in your area, but the plan also should address unexpected incidents as well.

Be sure to walk new employees through the disaster plan. Perform table-top drills so they can see first-hand what going through an emergency situation may be like. Allow time for questions and discussion. Emergency management drills can be a simple discussion of the procedural steps, or you can create a scenario to work through so that people see how to use the written plan.

As I write this, I am on an airplane. I hope I never have to experience an incident involving a plane ride, but I know I want everyone on board prepared if something does occur. The same should be true in your lab. Unfortunately, safety incidents are more common than in the airline industry, and the need for readiness is urgent. Fires, exposures, weather disasters, and spills do occur in labs across the country. Make sure you and your staff are trained and prepared to handle them.

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