The Physical Fix
The Physical Fix

The microbiology laboratory was newly remodeled, and the staff was excited to have windows in the department. But when summer came, it was unbearably hot in the department, and the building’s air handling systems could not keep the temperatures at a comfortable level. Eventually, staff began working without lab coats and someone brought portable fans in the area. Over time people began to notice that the agar plates were all contaminated with mold growth, and because one fan was pointed toward the biological safety cabinet, two employees became exposed to tuberculosis.

The hematology staff noticed the problem with the floor drain- it frequently bubbled over where the tubing went into the drain. Instead of contacting the facilities department, the staff laid absorbent pads on the floor around the drain. One floor below, the hospital biomedical engineers noticed a small leak above their breakroom table. They didn’t want to complain to the facilities folks, so they wiped up the table with napkins when the liquid landed there. Six months later, one engineer was diagnosed with hepatitis.

The laboratory is a dynamic department- people move constantly, equipment is moved, cleaned, and repaired every day. When that happens, there will be regular changes to the physical environment, especially one that operates 24 hours every day. Because of that, it is important to take note of changes in the environment, particularly those that can affect the safety of the people who work there. Sometimes those changes are obvious, but often there may be small, gradual, unnoticed changes as well. These minor changes can be dangerous if no one is paying attention to them, and performing regular audits to monitor such changes is a good safety practice.

A solid physical environment audit includes a walk-through of the department, and the items on the checklist tend to be easy to see, so these audits should not take a great deal of time. That said, it is also important to truly check each item every time the audit is performed. Don’t “pencil whip” the checklist or overlook items because you just checked them. You may miss something important that just changed, and it can create an unwanted safety issue in the laboratory.

A physical environment audit includes categories such as infection control, fire safety, electrical safety, emergency management, security, waste management, and compressed gas safety. Customize the audit to the needs of your areas. Perform a walk-through at least monthly, or more often if there are specific on-going issues in the department. Train multiple people to perform the audit and have them take turns. The more eyes on the environment, the more likely you are to pick up on safety issues.

A typical physical environment audit list will include a check for clear passageways in the lab, and a review of general cleanliness and neatness. Make sure evacuation routes are clear and free from obstructions. Fire safety items include checking that fire extinguishers are not blocked and that they have been regularly inspected. Make sure compressed gas tanks are individually chained or otherwise secured to prevent tipping. Check all electrical cords in the department for damage or fraying, and immediately take any equipment out of service if there is damage noted. Check to see if lab floors and work benches are cleaned or decontaminated frequently. Audits may also include staff knowledge questions which test staff knowledge such as asking about the use or the location of fire-fighting equipment. These knowledge questions can help to raise staff safety competency as well.

Paying attention to the physical department is a critical component of a complete laboratory safety program. Ignoring the environment can lead to injuries and exposures both within the department and even in other areas. If you’re not performing audits, find a checklist or create our own and perform them regularly. Caring for the space you work in is a positive leading safety indicator, and it displays true ownership of the overall lab safety culture.

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