The safety reaction


May 1, 2019

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

The toddler’s father let her hand go so he could pay for their dinner at the busy airport. The little girl quickly wandered away and suddenly found herself at the top of a long escalator. No one was watching.

Miss Anderson was walking home as she did every day from the neighborhood pool. She was very hard of hearing, but she was as friendly as could be. As she waved to a neighbor while crossing the street, she didn’t notice the car speeding toward her.

You may have encountered a situation similar to one of these (hopefully not!), or you may have seen something like it in a movie. These scenarios can create a reaction in you: a feeling of sudden dread and the urge to take quick action. That’s a good response, and it could save someone from a serious incident.

But is your reaction the same in the lab where you work?

Lisa processed some cerebrospinal fluid samples at the front desk that were delivered from another lab. She later received a call from the sending lab alerting her that the patient was positive for Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, a prion disease, and that the specimens had been sent in error. When she went to clean up the processing area and tell the other staff, Lisa saw her co-worker leaning on the counter and using the computer with no personal protective equipment.

In the morning, Ken dropped a glass bottle of hydrochloric acid on the lab floor, and it shattered and spilled. He went to get the spill cleanup kit, but before he returned, the pathologist walked into the department wearing open-toed shoes.

As a lab safety professional, one of my goals is to help lab staff have that same urgent gut reaction—that feeling that something is wrong and needs immediate correction—in each of the lab scenarios above, and whenever a safety issue is seen. In each scenario, the risk of injury or infection is very high and needs to be mitigated. All too often, however, these events occur in the workplace and no one reacts. That’s a safety culture problem.

There are many possible reasons for that typical lack of response. People are busy, the unsafe practices are common, or safety is simply not a priority. Yet lab injuries and exposures continue to occur across the nation, so the issues need to be addressed, and there are ways to do that successfully.

One method I use in safety training (that I’ve written about before) is the development of “safety eyes.” Safety eyes are the latent superpower that everyone possesses, but it’s a power that needs to be taught and honed. When you work in a particular environment every day, it can become difficult to see the safety problems without training and practice. Take pictures of unsafe lab practices or problems and show them to staff, asking them to identify the issue. As they practice, they will begin to see issues more often. Take practice safety walks with staff and look for issues. These actions will help develop everyone’s safety eyes into powerful tools.

Of course, just seeing the issue is not enough. The second piece is teaching staff to respond when they spot a problem. That can take some training and empowerment—new ideas for many. Teach staff to coach their peers for safety. This behavior will show others that safety is a priority, and over time more and more staff will begin to follow suit.

To produce the response you want in your laboratory—noticing an issue, experiencing that gut reaction, then making the correction—takes consistency. Provide education about the regulations. Next, develop the safety eyes of the staff through pictures and safety walks. Finally, teach them to respond to the problems. As people, we are aware of the immediate danger when we see a toddler at the top of an escalator. The possibility of harm is clear to us. If you can produce that clarity for your staff with lab safety issues, you can hone their reactions, improve your safety culture, and drastically reduce injuries and exposures.

Copyright © 2020. Hospital Safety Center.