When the Cat’s Away…
When the Cat’s Away…

Two lab technologists were bored while working on a slow night shift in the lab. They decided to take the leftover dry ice and put it in the sink to make a fog in the laboratory. After running water on the dry ice for a few minutes, the lab was fogging up. Suddenly the two men heard a loud cracking noise and a thump. When the fog cleared, they could see that the stainless steel sink had cracked and fallen to the floor of the cabinet beneath it.

Lydia loved working alone on the evening shift because there was no manager around to watch her. She spent her downtimes on the internet and eating her dinner in the lab. After her third year of working, she suddenly became ill with a fever and loss of appetite. A lab workup later confirmed that she had contracted Hepatitis B.

It was always hot at night in the lab and it was typical for the techs to perform testing while not using any PPE. They handled samples with no gloves, did not wear lab coats, and they never used face protection when handling open specimens or chemicals. One night Emily was placing a rack of open specimens on the analyzer when she bumped her hand against the counter. Something splashed into her eye. She decided not to tell her co-workers since she didn’t know which specimen splashed, and she didn’t want to be the reason that someone would start enforcing PPE use on her shift.

If you want to know what your lab safety culture is like, it might be a good idea to stop in after regular hours and take a look at what’s happening. In many labs, day shift employees tend to be the most compliant with safety regulations such as PPE use (If that’s not true, you may have a much larger issue to worry about). Safety violations such as eating in the lab, not using PPE, and even “horsing around” are dangerous, and if that is happening in your lab, your staff is in danger.

I am often unhappily amazed when I look at social media to see what lab workers post about their jobs. Sadly, what is shared is often a poor witness to others about the inherent dangers in the department and the careless approach to them. Holding samples without gloves, working without lab coats, and using cell phones to take pictures are just some of the safety issues regularly seen. I have visited several labs across the country and seen the safety culture at many stages, but these social media posts make things look much worse in my opinion.

The proper use of PPE is mandated by law, and it is required by every laboratory accrediting agency. There is no excuse not to enforce that at all times of the day. Laboratory acquired infections occur every year, and the exact number is difficult to pin down. That is because some exposures are unknown and many more are unreported. Of course, some are not reported simply so no one gets into trouble. Those who have worked in the field for many years will say they have worked without protection and never had an incident. All that means is they were lucky, it doesn’t mean they did the right thing. New lab students are typically taught well these days about lab safety as part of their standard curriculum. However, some go to work where the safety culture is bad, and they fall into those unsafe practices as well.

In the laboratory setting, it is important to stress to staff that the environment they work in is not a safe one. They need to take very specific measures to protect themselves each and every day- and by that I mean day, evening and night. If you’re a safety leader and you suspect there are safety issues on other shifts, stop in and pay a surprise visit from time to time. Your presence may make a cultural change, and it will help you to learn where a safety focus is needed in your laboratory.

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