Laboratory Safety: A Universal Right
Approaching laboratory safety from a diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility perspective.
Lab safety is vital—but an easier goal for some to attain than others. Decades of design have created clothing, equipment, and environments that are more suitable for some populations than others. But now that the spotlight rests more heavily than ever on diversity, equity, inclusion, and accessibility in science and medicine, laboratory leaders need to ask themselves: is the field ready to accommodate an increasingly diverse range of professionals? At least in terms of occupational health and safety, there’s still work to be done.
Personal protective equipment
Many laboratories offer a range of sizing options for lab coats, gloves, and other personal protective equipment (PPE). But for employees whose body size or shape doesn’t fall within the available ranges, appropriate laboratory attire can present a challenge.1 Lab administrators can get ahead of some sizing issues by selecting PPE vendors who offer a wide range of sizes and styles, increasing the likelihood that most staff members will find suitable options. Alternatively, offering staff a PPE budget—potentially alongside a range of acceptable vendor options—may allow more freedom of choice and increase the chances that every employee will find equipment that works for them. Laboratories offering only one or a few options should develop standard procedures by which employees can request the approval and purchase of alternative PPE. It’s important to make sure all members of the lab are aware of these options so that no one feels the need to “make do” with less-than-ideal safety equipment.
Laboratorians whose religion or culture requires specific standards of dress may also need special accommodations. Headscarves, for instance, present a safety risk when loose or unsecured, so must be close-fitted and secured; many prefer a headscarf long enough to be tucked into or even fastened to a lab coat. Many everyday hijabs are made of flammable, absorbent materials; however, several manufacturers produce specifically designed garments, such as flame-resistant hijabs,2 that laboratories can add to their list of available PPE. Labs may also consider stocking disposable head covers for staff to use in case of emergency. For other clothing options, such as abayas or niqabs,3 additional protective gear such as masks, safety goggles, or flame-retardant gowns can increase safety without limiting employees’ ability to dress in accordance with cultural or religious needs.
Other types of PPE, such as gloves or masks, may require more creative adaptations. Gloves that don’t fit appropriately can impact grip and dexterity; some employees may even avoid wearing gloves due to the discomfort they cause. This is a particular challenge when dealing with hand or limb differences that make wearing standard gloves difficult or impossible. Several manufacturers make or adapt reusable safety gloves to accommodate unique hand sizes and shapes; however, for disposable gloves, there are fewer answers—and most current solutions are “DIY.” For example, some glove users with missing fingers turn those fingers inside out so that they don’t hang loose and interfere with dexterity; others secure any unused parts of the glove with adhesive strips or sterilized elastic bands. Laboratorians with sensitive skin or sensory processing issues may struggle with the texture of standard laboratory safety gloves, but may find success using a thin, seamless liner glove that alleviates texture issues without impacting function.
Masks and goggles present a number of challenges. Laboratorians who wear headscarves or other garments that cover their ears may require head straps or pins to keep these items in place; for situations where fit is essential, such as when using a respirator or full-body protective suit, these should always be fitted and fit-tested while wearing the head covering in question.4 Alternative fastening solutions such as extra head straps, liner caps, or adhesives may also expand the options available to employees with head or facial differences, hearing aids, cochlear implants, or other considerations that may not be compatible with standard ear loops or single head straps. For those with sensory issues, offering multiple attachment options may help, as may offering a variety of approved options. For example, some employees may feel more comfortable with lightweight safety glasses,5 whereas others prefer heavier goggles with a seal; some may prefer masks with protective foam or adhesive at the bridge of the nose, whereas others may prefer a larger, smaller, or differently shaped mask body. A common issue is nose bridge height, which differs widely6 and can significantly affect mask or respirator fit.7
It’s impossible to plan for every eventuality—but laboratories can lay a strong foundation by offering multiple options for required PPE, requesting and engaging with feedback on improving safety measures, and establishing clear, easy procedures for requesting alternatives when needed.
For many clinical laboratory professionals, it’s not their equipment but the lab itself that poses a potential safety hazard. Narrow or cluttered thoroughfares can limit access for people who use mobility aids; disorganized storage can be difficult for blind or visually impaired users to navigate; and even high shelves can present a challenge for those who are not tall enough—or cannot stretch or climb—to reach them. Even individual instruments may require adaptation to be reachable, usable, and understandable by all members of the lab.
But the challenges are not just physical. People with sensory issues may struggle to cope with the lighting, sounds, or scents of the laboratory—issues that may be helped by tools such as tinted lenses, noise-cancelling or noise-isolating headphones, or other interventions. Laboratorians with reading difficulties or visual impairments may benefit from high-contrast or large-print signage; image-based safety signage can also be helpful and further includes people at all levels of language proficiency. Those with hearing impairments may prefer visual signals, such as alarms and timers that use flashing lights instead of relying on sound alone.
Many of these obstacles can be addressed proactively. The American Chemical Society recommends applying the RAMP framework to develop a lab environment that combines safety and inclusivity.8
|The RAMP Framework
|Consider the accessibility of the laboratory (including its building, environment, emergency facilities, and exit routes), the accessibility and convenience of individual workstations, lab-adjacent facilities such as offices and storage rooms, and transient obstacles such as movable equipment. Also consider ways in which the use of the lab environment might create hazards—for instance, a sink setup that increases the risk of spills or a delicate instrument placed on an unstable surface.
|Risk assessments should be in place for all procedures conducted in the laboratory and should be regularly updated for accuracy, regulatory compliance, and to accommodate changing needs. Involving laboratorians with a range of needs and perspectives can inform risk assessments and improve preventive measures. Risk assessments and guidelines should include methods for reporting, recording, and communicating issues (including risks and near misses).
|When risk assessments identify issues that can be remedied, lab leaders should do so as soon as possible. Anticipating potential future needs—from a scientific, medical, or personnel perspective—can help reduce current and future risk exposure. Additionally, safety measures themselves should be inclusive and accessible; for instance, by placing signage in areas visible from a seated position, providing key messages in multiple formats (such as pictograms, Braille, or audio), or providing employees with portable safety guides for quick reference, which can alleviate memory deficits and anxiety.
|Prepare for episodes and issues
|Risk assessment and mitigation can reduce safety-related incidents in the lab, but not eliminate them entirely. Establishing response plans and providing inclusive information and training can accelerate response times in emergencies, potentially limiting negative outcomes and allowing a faster return to normal operations.
No laboratory can anticipate every possible safety issue—and that’s doubly true when considering the variety of needs and situations that may arise as diversity increases in the clinical lab. But, to ensure that as many potential hazards and concerns as possible are identified and addressed early, lab leaders and administrators must broaden their perspectives, invite feedback and discussion, and be ready and willing to adapt their laboratories to welcome every member of the team.
- Field K. Diversity in Personal Protective Equipment (PPE). The British Standards Institution. https://www.bsigroup.com/globalassets/documents/ppe/diversity-in-ppe-whitepaper.pdf.
- Plackett B. Meet the inventor of a flame-resistant hijab and PPE that actually fits women. The Brilliant. April 4, 2022. https://thebrilliant.com.au/profiles/meet-the-inventor-of-a-flame-resistant-hijab-and-ppe-that-actually-fits-women/.
- Plackett B. Adapting hijabs for lab safety. Chemical & Engineering News. August 2, 2020. https://cen.acs.org/safety/lab-safety/Adapting-hijabs-lab-safety/98/i30.
- Juergensmeyer M, Adetunji SA. Safety in chemical and biomedical laboratories: guidelines for the use of head covers by female Muslim scientists. Appl Biosaf. 2022;27(1):1–6. doi:10.1089/apb.2021.0015.
- Lab equipment sensory issues. Reddit. October 27, 2022. https://www.reddit.com/r/AutisticAdults/comments/yfam68/lab_equipment_sensory_issues/.
- Solano T et al. One size fits all?: A simulation framework for face-mask fit on population-based faces. PLoS One. 2021;16(6):e0252143. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0252143.
- Oestenstad RK, Bartolucci AA. Factors affecting the location and shape of face seal leak sites on half-mask respirators. J Occup Environ Hyg. 2010;7(6):332–341. doi:10.1080/15459621003729909.
- Dunn AL et al. Reducing risk: strategies to advance laboratory safety through diversity, equity, inclusion, and respect. J Am Chem Soc. 2023;145(21):11468–11471. doi:10.1021/jacs.3c03627.
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