In discussions with laboratory safety professionals across the country this year, some of the same safety issues seemed to crop up over and over. Lab staff are tired, they’re fatigued about dealing with COVID-19, and they just don’t seem to be focused on lab safety anymore. They aren’t following good safety practices, they aren’t wearing gloves, lab coats, masks, or even eye protection. Of course this is a problem that needs attention. The hazards faced in the workplace are not limited to coronaviruses, and these unhealthy practices can lead to some very bad outcomes.
Despite the pandemic, this issue with staff is not a new one. Those who have worked in lab settings for years can easily become complacent about safety. They begin to notice over time that there doesn’t seem to be a consequence for unsafe behaviors, so the practices continue. It’s not a very good argument, but those new to safety ask about it often. What do you say to somebody when you ask them to change a behavior when they tell you they have been doing it their way for years and they are healthy? In order to create a good response, it becomes important to turn the conversation on its side. What they have just explained is a run of unsafe behaviors that could have resulted in illness or worse. It did not, but was that because the actions were safe after all? Could it be that the person has just been lucky- and there will come a time when that luck runs out? Definitely. Make the conversation personal. Explain in detail how an unwanted outcome can affect them and their family. Many people simply do not realize the potential consequences of their actions.
Raising basic safety awareness is always important in order to maintain a strong culture of safety, not just during a pandemic, and there are many ways to do that. Make an assessment of the overall safety culture using surveys or by talking to lab staff and leadership. Review your findings with the staff so that they are clear about why you are tackling the issues. If possible, obtain a commitment from staff to improve the overall safety culture. Find safety champions who will work with you on the on-going project. Be sure safety is being discussed daily and is placed in front of the staff. Use huddles, e-mails and safety boards to promote a positive culture.
Unsafe behaviors in the laboratory can easily have consequences that may affect others in the department. Spills and exposures are just some incidents that may occur. Messy lab areas can create trips or falls, and improper storage of chemicals or hazardous wastes can be dangerous as well. Perhaps laboratory staff don’t think enough about the dangerous consequences because there isn’t enough training about them. Perhaps they don’t think about the potential consequences to others because they haven’t been told about the possible physical, environmental, or financial consequences. Maintaining awareness of these issues is always key.
The COVID-19 pandemic has made for a very long year for employees in healthcare, and the struggles are not ending anytime soon. As safety leaders, it is important for us to do what we can to help reinvigorate staff to continue with good safety practices. We must remind them that despite all of the changes in safety guidelines in the past year that the basics – PPE use, using engineering controls and work practice controls- are there to help us get safely through the day so that we can still go home healthy and to be able to enjoy our lives so that we can see the end of these unusual times.