A multitude of employee injuries over a six-month period did nothing to get the attention of the laboratory leadership. The Employee Health nurse was nearing retirement, and she didn’t pay attention to the fact that these injuries all came from the same area- the autopsy suite- and that many had a common cause. The pathologist knew that the employees were getting hurt because of bad conditions in the morgue area. The autopsy table was old and had rusted sharp edges that frequently caused cuts on the hands of those handling it. The body storage refrigerator was small, and staff members from the security department and nursing suffered back injuries from the awkward positions needed to load and unload bodies on the shelves. However, the pathologist’s complaints to the lab manager were unheeded, mainly because he complained about something different every day.
The new lab safety officer noted the lab injury reports and very quickly noticed a pattern. She interviewed the affected staff and took a look around the autopsy suite. She used her camera and took pictures of the rusty table and the high shelves in the tiny body storage refrigerator. She tallied the cost to the facility of the accumulated injuries and placed the information in a presentation that included the photographs. She made an appointment with the hospital administrator and gave her brief presentation. Before the week was out, the lab had approved funding for updated autopsy furniture and a mechanical lift for moving bodies.
In life, each person has a specific “sphere of influence,” where there are things you are able to touch and on which you have an effect. It is typically a waste of time to expend energy on those things you cannot change- like a traffic jam, for instance. Stewing about that truly is a waste and accomplishes little. If your role deals with lab safety, then you do have influence on every safety issue in the department, even though it may not always seem that way.
As a lab safety professional, it can be frustrating to see safety issues go unnoticed or unattended, especially after they have been reported. The apparent roadblocks to solutions may be a lack of funds, busy or disinterested leadership, and even an overall poor culture of safety. There are steps you can take, however, which can help you move around the roadblocks and bring those unattended safety issues toward a solution.
Finances are a common hindrance to making changes in the laboratory such as remodeling a space or even getting new or improved safety equipment. As I say, safety is always value-added, but it is important to be able to prove it to those holding the financial reins. First, tally the cost of any injuries that may have occurred due to the safety issue. That total should include any medical treatment, time out of work, the cost of replacement employees or overtime incurred, and time to make any temporary fixes and to communicate to staff. If there is a possibility of penalties or fines should the issue be noted by an outside regulatory agency, those should be considered as well. Most often, the total of the costs for the safety issue are greater than the cost of the fix. In the healthcare setting where finances are getting more attention each year, this can be a powerful tool to get things done.
If lab leadership is uninterested or too busy to help you with safety issues, there are some long-term solutions. First, make sure you act as the safety role model and build trust with peers and leadership. If your discussions with them are reasonable, and if your focus is on sensible, realistic solutions, you will have a better response than if you get angry or try to control everything. That relationship-building can be critical to your ability to influence changes when needed. If the overall safety culture in the lab is poor, you can still have a positive effect on it even without the full support of leadership. That leadership support is always good, but making positive changes can occur without it, and that also comes through being a role model and working well with the lab staff.
A successful lab safety professional develops and increases their sphere of influence over time, but it can be an uphill battle depending on the location and the other people involved. Knowing what the important issues are and when to tackle them is key, and learning that while navigating through a particular culture and organizational structure can take time. Have patience, and you will eventually be able to leverage your safety knowledge to be able to manage upward in order to create a safer laboratory.