The Psychiatry of Lab Safety
The Psychiatry of Lab Safety

With the rapid spread of the Wuhan coronavirus (Covid-19), many lab folks have raised questions about the potential affects to their job, their safety and their health. A new pathogen has emerged, and like previous bugs, its virulence and infectivity start out unknown, and fears grow. It’s an interesting phenomenon from the perspective of one who works to promote laboratory safety. Questions come to mind- why isn’t the staff as concerned about all of the other pathogens they work with every day? Why do folks still use cell phones or even eat in the lab setting when the danger of infection is so real?

As a safety professional, the question becomes this; how do we help lab staff become (respectfully) fearful of the things they work with in the lab? That would change behaviors so that there is good compliance to the lab safety regulations, and it would reduce the injuries and exposures that would occur. Shouldn’t everyone want this?

Part of the answer is education for staff. People become complacent over time- especially when there are no apparent incidents- and they forget about the consequences of poor lab safety. They forget about the potential risks to their health. Do staff members have Diabetes or are they taking prednisone for any reason? These conditions lower a person’s overall immune health, and the risk for infections goes up even more. Are they aware of this?

The next piece of the puzzle is human behavior when an injury or exposure does occur. According to Sean Kaufman, safety and behavioral expert (, lab employees tend to first move to denial. If symptoms of an exposure or infection occur, they are likely to deny them. As symptoms progress, the mind moves to fear. Is this real? What if I get really sick? The usual next step in the progression is concern about the stigma surrounding the event or the infection. People tend to hide the event because of this. As you can imagine, that negatively affects the reporting of incidents in the laboratory, which has been partially responsible for a lack of true exposure data in labs for years.

This denial to fear to stigma progression for exposed laboratorians is generally the opposite of what occurs with the general public. Fear about infectious diseases usually occurs first with people when a new bug becomes newsworthy, followed by worries about stigma (think of the HIV scare), and then denial is the final step. Neither of these progression paths is healthy, and it takes training and education to overcome them.

I always say raising safety awareness in the laboratory is important, and it should be an ever-continuing process. It has to be, or we run into problems such as complacency and non-compliance. These problems then lead to something much worse- injuries and exposures, some of which can be very detrimental. As a lab safety professional, make sure you are providing that vital initial training and that it includes information about the very real consequences of poor safety practices. On-going education about safety should occur as well. Providing that information might quell the anxiety when something new like Covid-19 comes around.

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