The majority of laboratory injuries and exposures are preventable, and most of them occur because people are not paying close attention to the situation. They lose their situational awareness or were never paying attention to it from the start. Unfortunately, safety professionals spend a great deal of time investigating such incidents rather than focusing on preventing them. If the power of the pause was understood by more healthcare workers, there would be fewer dangerous incidents and exposures.

One illustration of that power can be seen in a simple exercise. A group of people is asked to read aloud quickly a list of words that indicate different colors- green, red, etc. The words are read together at the pace of one second each, usually to someone clapping out that rhythm. The words themselves are displayed in different colors, and the colors do not match the words. For example, the word “red” is written in black, the word “blue” is written in green, etc. These incongruent words and colors create what is known as the “Stroop Effect,” first theorized in 1935. The leader of the exercise begins clapping at a steady rhythm and asks participants to read the words.

This first part goes well, you’re just asking people to read the actual words at a fast pace. The next step, however, becomes more difficult. The people are asked to go down the list again at the same rhythm, but this time they are asked to say the color of the word, and not to read the word itself. Typically, this goes pretty badly. For the third art of the exercise, the naming of the colors is repeated at a much slower pace, with a slight pause between each word. Once that pause is placed between each word, the people recite the correct colors. Pausing is a means of overcoming this Stroop Effect issue in our brains, and it can assist with workplace safety as well.

When investigating a needle stick incident, the safety officer learned the employee completed the draw, attempted to engage the needle safety device, but stuck their finger when grabbing the needle to toss it into the sharps container. The employee did not notice that the safety device did not engage and the needle was still exposed. The employee stated she was busy and in a hurry because there were many other patients waiting. I have always said that when an employee is stressed and busy, that’s when stopping for a moment to gain situational awareness is most important. Had this employee paused for a moment to ensure the needle safety device was fully engaged, the incident would never have occurred.

The lab manager had to speak to a chemistry technologist after a serum splash exposure to the eyes. When looking at the work area, the manager noticed there was an adjustable face shield in place but that staff moved it into place only when needed. The tech admitted he was busy at the time of the splash and that he neglected to move the shield into place before uncapping specimens. Again, a pause to think about safety here would have helped.

In another situation, a microbiology technologist was eager to start the day and get through it since her vacation began the next day. She quickly went through the daily check log and checked items off but did not actually perform the checks. Halfway through the day, she noticed it seemed warm and that it was unusually quiet at her biological safety cabinet work station. She decided to look at the gauges and noticed that there was no protective air flow in operation. She had been working with TB samples all morning. When she reported the issue, the manager told her that all employees in the area would need to go to Employee Health and have follow up for potential tuberculosis exposures. Pausing to perform the safety checks at the beginning of the shift would have made a big difference in that outcome for several employees.

Pausing for safety in the workplace can be a powerful tool, even during the busiest moments. In fact, that’s when it works best. Use that pause in your arsenal, and maintain situational awareness so that future injuries and exposures can be prevented.