Many years ago, I was hired to perform a safety audit for a laboratory. As I walked through one department, an employee asked what I was doing. When I remarked that I was finding safety issues in order to keep her safe, she asked, “what are you keeping me safe from?” It was the right question. This employee was working in a lab where there were several safety violations, and she didn’t notice any of them. Was it a lack of education? Was she just a product of a poor lab safety culture? Why didn’t she see the danger she was in?
More recently, I was performing an audit in a laboratory when the manager was bringing a new employee through during her orientation. I was introduced as the lab safety officer, and I described some of my duties like auditing and safety compliance monitoring. The new employee immediately asked, “What happens if you catch someone not doing what they should?” That was the wrong question.
As an experienced lab safety professional, I often see people fail to follow certain lab safety regulations. You do not have to look far to find lapses in lab safety practices. Vendors and service representatives and other visitors walk into labs across the country and lab staff ignore them. The visitors are not given information about the hazards in the department and they are not offered PPE. A glance at social media will reveal multiple pictures of lab workers not wearing PPE as well. Oh, and they are taking those pictures with cell phones they shouldn’t be using (sometimes the hand holding the phone is gloved, other times, it is not). While you should be concerned about these unsafe behaviors, we should be equally concerned about those that witness them and say nothing.
The COVID-19 pandemic has raised the public awareness of an important aspect of personal safety: the unsafe behavior of others does have a direct affect on your own safety. People who refuse to wear masks or who are sick and do not isolate themselves may create situations where the virus may be spread. In the past two years, many people have realized this and have felt empowered to say something to those who are not exhibiting safe behaviors. The realization that they themselves may be in danger has made people feel empowered to speak up for their safety and that of others around them. Perhaps that is what is needed in the lab setting as well.
Unsafe behaviors in the laboratory can easily have consequences that may affect others in the department. Spills and exposures are just some incidents that may occur. Messy lab areas can create trips or falls, and improper storage of chemicals or hazardous wastes can be dangerous as well. Perhaps laboratory staff don’t think enough about the dangerous consequences because there isn’t enough training about them. Perhaps they don’t think about the potential consequences to others because they haven’t been told about the possible physical, environmental or financial consequences.
When the new lab employee asked the question, “What happens if you catch someone not doing what they should,” I should have had an immediate answer. I should have said that she asked the wrong question. The real question is, “More importantly, what happens to you if you’re not doing what you should?” Teaching staff about the consequences of unsafe lab practices is something that should start on day one, and the awareness of these issues should be raised often and continuously. The truth is, it is important to correct your own unsafe behaviors, but it is also important to feel empowered to correct unsafe issues that are witnessed. There may be others who are asking the right questions, but they do not understand the dangers they face. The truth is, we all have a responsibility for our safety and that of everyone else who may be in the laboratory. If we own that responsibility, then no one’s safety has to be in question.