I have been a fan of Godzilla movies since my childhood, and the latest release (number 37 in the franchise for those keeping track) was not a disappointment. Godzilla Minus One is a Toho Studios production set in post-World War 2 Japan, a time when the country felt it was at level zero, its lowest point in history. The emergence of a destructive monster makes things even worse, generating the “minus one” designation.
Sometimes you can feel the “minus one” with laboratory safety. Maybe you work long and hard on a complicated safety project, but an incident creates a major setback. You are proud of the lab safety program you have labored over, then an inspector arrives and points out all the holes you didn’t know existed. Maybe you have actively made changes which decreased injuries and exposures in the labs, but a single multiple-exposure event changes all of that.
The reality is that these setbacks are only temporary. Managing safety in the laboratory is an ongoing, never-ending task, and it will continue to need management even after you have moved onto something else. While it is acceptable to have goals, identified outcomes or products, it is important to remember that these intended successes are only a part of the journey.
The segment of the lab safety journey that needs your focus is not the end goal, but rather it is the process. When you have problems or setbacks, and even when you have successes, your daily focus should be on the process that will lead to goal success. For example, if one of your safety goals is to meet a measured reduction in exposures, your attention should be on the things you can do today (or each day) to help reach that goal. Perhaps there is education that needs to be provided. Start developing that. Maybe there is an increase in needlesticks in the phlebotomy area. Create a plan to look at the products being used and the training and oversight of staff. Talk to employees who have had exposures and discover how they happened. Look for trends or system issues. All of those activities are part of the process that will enable you to reach the goal, and those should be getting your attention each day.
When a “minus” event occurs, something that moves you away from the safety goal, it is again important to focus on the process. That may mean an investigation of the event and the people involved. When safety errors occur, it is always best not to look for blame, but to look for system problems. When an event happens, learning from it and putting stops in place to prevent it from occurring again are key. When these safety fixes are put in place, fewer incidents occur over time, and the long-term goal is again positively affected. The short-term minus becomes a long-term plus.
When systemic safety improvements are put in place, the safety culture improves over time. Each day, as you focus on the process of lab safety, the overall safety program becomes stronger. It may be that you did not reach your goal in the time you desired, but it may be that the lab is now in better shape to prevent certain incidents than it has ever been. That is a legacy you can pass on to the next safety professional.
At the end of Godzilla Minus One (be warned, spoilers ahead), a kamikaze pilot is assigned the task of flying a bomb into the monster’s mouth. When the explosion occurs and the monster is defeated, the audience learns that an ejection seat was installed in the cockpit so the pilot could be saved. When you focus on the process and install fail safes in your lab safety processes, you protect your employees today and in the future. You can defeat the safety “monster” and create a better culture for staff today and for the future of the laboratory.