By the Numbers: Lab Injury and Exposure Data

By Dan Scungio, MT (ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ)  bio

Finding information about the number of Laboratory Acquired Infections (LAIs) and other laboratory injuries in the United States is difficult. Not all events are reported, and of those that are reported at the facility level, only some are required to be reported to national agencies. The CDC reports cites four studies that collectively identified 4,079 LAIs resulting in 168 deaths occurring between 1930 and 1978. Again, those are just the reported occurrences, and the data says nothing about other injuries in the lab such as slips, trips, and falls, or lacerations.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) provides benchmark injury and exposure data for clinical laboratories, but this information too, is limited to that which is reported. That said, the information may still be used to compare your lab’s reportable injury data to labs across the nation. This can provide one form of assessing your overall lab safety.

The BLS provides annual clinical lab workplace injury data in the form of a rate. That rate is obtained via a calculation:

(Number of injuries and illnesses X 200,000) / Employee hours worked = Incidence rate

Incidence rates can be used to show a relative level of injuries and illnesses among different industries and within the same industry. Because a common base and a specific period of time are involved, these rates can help determine both problem areas and progress in preventing work-related injuries and illnesses.

In this equation, the number of injuries illnesses comes from your log of work-related injuries and illnesses or your department’s OSHA 300 log. The worked hours from your lab should not include any non-work time (even if it is paid) such as vacation, sick leave, or holidays. You can estimate the worked hours on the basis of scheduled hours or eight hours per workday. The 200,000 is a constant—it represents the equivalent of 100 employees working 40 hours per week, 50 weeks per year, and provides the standard base for the incidence rates.

It takes time for national annual injury and illness rates to be calculated, so the most recent data from the BLS today is from the year 2015. In 2014 the rate for clinical labs was 3.4, and in 2015 it went down to 3.3. In fact, the BLS lab data shows a steady decline in reported incidents over the past twelve years. That’s good news; that could mean that lab safety awareness is improving across the country.

How does your laboratory data compare to national numbers? It’s a good idea to use the calculation so that you can see how your lab is doing. If your injury, exposure and illness numbers are on the rise, it’s time to take action. Look for the causes of the incidents and implement methods of prevention. If you see a pattern of the same type of incidents, you may need to execute a safety stand-down around that specific process.

Now that you can compare your reportable data to a benchmark, what about the non-reportable events in your lab? They should get attention as well. Events like closing a finger in a drawer or cutting a finger on a clean microtome blade should always be reported to lab management and the occupational health department, but they may not be required to be reported elsewhere. They still need the same follow-up in the lab, however, and as a lab safety professional, you should be an integral part of the process to engender safety success in the lab.

While there is no national data to compare to for all types of lab injuries and exposures, it is still helpful to collect the information and calculate your lab’s rate. You can keep track of that overall rate and look for trends and make improvements on all incidents in the laboratory. Be sure to promote a culture of transparency and non-punitive reporting so that all lab accidents can be documented.

Knowing how many LAIs and other injuries in laboratories are occurring across the nation is no easy task. The best place to begin is within your own lab. Collect the data and become more familiar with this indicator that can guide you to the right path to improved employee safety in the lab.

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