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Taking 'control' of your lab safety situation


January 1, 2018

Editor’s note: In this guest column, Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, laboratory safety officer for Sentara Healthcare in Virginia and otherwise known as “Dan, the Lab Safety Man,” discusses the important issues that affect your job every day.

The well-established “Hierarchy of Controls” is a system used to eliminate or reduce hazards in the workplace. Regardless of whether you’ve heard the term, if you work in the laboratory, you’ve been an active participant in this system of safety. The purpose of the hierarchy is to protect employees who work in hazardous areas (like labs) by implementing multiple levels of precautions. If you pay attention to its order, however, you might be surprised by the different levels of protection you use every day.

The first and most effective level of control is elimination of the hazard. There is no danger to the laboratorian if the hazard is gone, but of course, this control cannot be enacted in the lab setting. The hazards dealt with are the patient samples and chemicals used in testing, and they are unavoidable in laboratory work.

The next control in the hierarchy is substitution. While the hazardous samples that are analyzed can’t be replaced, some dangerous chemicals used in lab processes can. For example, manufacturers offer xylene substitutes that are far less hazardous to employees, but which serve the same function in many processes.

Engineering controls are next. These involve physical barriers or the use of engineered equipment to separate the worker physically from the hazard. A good example of an engineering control is a bio-logical safety cabinet or a chemical fume hood. Even a counter-mounted splash shield is an engineer-ing control. These devices provide strong protection from the hazards in the lab, provided they are used correctly.

Administrative controls are policies and practices meant to alter staff actions and behaviors in order to increase protection. It may no longer seem necessary to have policies preventing mouth pipet-ting—who does that anymore? But in today’s labs we still need policies preventing eating, gum chewing, and the use of cell phones. Like it or not, in their own way these practices are just as dan-gerous as placing a lab pipette between your lips.

Believe it or not, the last control—the one considered the least effective and the last resort—is the use of PPE. We all know staff need to use PPE in the labs, but the next time you don your lab coat, think about it: PPE is the very last useful barrier between you and the hazards you work with every day. Due to the nature of the lab setting, none of the other methods in the hierarchy can protect you sufficiently, so the use of this final protection is necessary. That should scare you a little, and it should make you realize how important PPE is for your safety. Fear doesn’t sound like an appealing motivator, but in the case of laboratory PPE, it’s not so bad. If all lab staff had enough fear of the pathogens and chemicals they use, together with some knowledge about the consequences of unsafe behaviors, PPE compliance would be better in labs everywhere.

Our skin is a good natural layer of “PPE,” but it contains many holes and openings that can be routes of infection. Laboratorians have to cover those holes, and using PPE (e.g., gloves, lab coats, and face protection) is the last method they have to do so. Once that PPE is on, employees have to be careful about their behaviors as well. That means not touching their faces with gloves on, and disposing of PPE slowly and carefully so as not to disperse contaminants. About 63 to 319 healthcare workers die annually from occupational exposures in the United States. Some of these exposures are unknown—in other words, no one realized they happened while at work—but most are preventable.

Help your staff understand the importance of the Hierarchy of Controls. Enforce the use of PPE and keep laboratorians safe from all of the hazards they encounter every day.

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