A recent internet sensation is Tariq, the newest “corn-bassador” of South Dakota. During an interview that was posted on Instagram, the young boy from Brooklyn, New York describes corn on the cob like a poet. Corn was new to him, it was exciting, and young Tariq said he “couldn’t imagine a more beautiful thing!” For me, corn is nothing new. I like it, but I don’t get excited about it, and when it is on my plate, I don’t pay it much attention. The laboratory can be like that for those who work in that environment every day. It’s nothing new, it’s where we work, and we stop paying attention to it. That can be dangerous, but how do we keep people interested enough to pay attention to their surroundings?
One of the most common reasons lab injuries and exposures occur is that people stop paying attention. They don’t pay attention to safety practices, to their environment, or to the hazards they may be handling. They didn’t notice the exposed sharp, they didn’t see the cabinet door when they stood up, or they ignored the spill on the floor that lead to a slip and fall. Another reason unfortunate events occur is that staff becomes complacent. They have performed the same procedure for years, or have worked with the same chemicals, and there have been no bad outcomes.
Raising safety awareness and maintaining it is an ongoing task that is necessary in the lab setting, and there are several ways to do that. Initial and ongoing safety training is vital. Introducing laboratory staff to the hazards in their workplace is required, but doing that once and never discussing it again is not enough. Once the initial orientation is complete, the safety program should engage employees with regular case studies, quizzes, or education sessions about specific topics. Regular reminders about PPE use, the importance of engineering controls, or proper chemical storage should occur. Laboratorians have much to learn and to know to perform their daily duties, and routine presentations on various topics will help staff to keep paying attention to safety.
Performing regular audits is another way to combat complacency and let staff know that safety is a priority in the department. Just the act or performing safety checks sends a powerful message to staff, and having different staff learn how to perform them teaches others what safety issues they should be looking for as they go about their daily tasks. Sharing audit results with management and the staff, and engaging staff with making corrections to issues also goes a long way to raising safety awareness in the laboratory.
Another method for avoiding safety complacency is to tell safety stories. Make sure every meeting or huddle is preceded by a safety reminder or by a safety incident that occurred or, better yet, was prevented. If daily, weekly, or monthly meetings are begun by discussing safety, the entire department will benefit, and the overall safety culture will improve.
It has been said that safety in the laboratory should never be the responsibility of one person, but it is typical for a department to have one person oversee it. That person usually has to share their safety duties with other responsibilities such as lab quality or even operations management. A lone safety professional can increase safety awareness by raising up safety champions for the department. Find one or two people who have participated in safety audits or education sessions, and work with them to increase their safety knowledge. Those people can start off meetings with safety stories, they can assist with audits, or they can participate in safety committee meetings. They can provide education and they may be able to maintain departmental safety communication boards. Having a team of developed champions who know and live safety can really strengthen the department’s overall culture.
If, like Tariq, you have discovered corn recently, it might seem like something amazing. But if you have eaten it for years, it’s nothing special. Safety, too, might seem boring if you have been in the lab for years and never been involved in an incident. For lab safety professionals, the subject never gets old, and things like pandemics and novel viral outbreaks keep them on their collective toes. Things do change in the field of safety, and passing along that education and maintaining awareness can help you make sure safety never goes out of style in your lab.