The facilities/maintenance department is a firsthand witness to many of a facility

Don't Forget the Lab

Accountability is the key, so get everyone involved in housekeeping.

Quiet gentle giants of the safety world, and also a fixture of potential danger from universities to hospitals and from clandestine government facilities to state-of-the-art for-profit private industry, the laboratory should be high on every safety professional’s short list of organizational safety concerns. Understanding of the layout, equipment, materials, workflow, and waste streams is crucial to both avoiding accidents entirely and responding appropriately to unfortunate events and dealing with the aftermath.

When was the last time you visited your lab past the front door? Do lab employees know whom to contact with safety concerns other than the AC or a backed-up drain? Now is as good a time as ever to evaluate your laboratory and build a stronger understanding of what is going on in there. Do your homework well ahead of time and know your hazards—all lab hazards are not created or resolved equally.

Ditch the Clutter
Fast-paced and deadline-driven laboratories often look to invite trouble. General cleanliness can go a long way toward avoiding workplace accidents. Clear the aisles, put items away when not in use, immediately clean up spills, and dispose of broken items. Slips, trips, and falls account for too many workplace injuries, which ultimately impact an organization's bottom line.

Accountability is the key, so get everyone involved in housekeeping. This is one of those areas where if specific responsibilities are not assigned, then everyone assumes it will be handled by someone else. You can discuss with your organization's lab director how to make this work by possibly tying these responsibilities to a section of their annual review.

Inspect from the ground up; make sure the flooring is appropriate for the use and storage is up off the floor, able to be kept clean and vermin free. Make sure everything is kept labeled, organized, and stored, and that the entire department has a cleanup day regularly to discard, dispose, or repurpose items.

Safety Equipment and Hazard Evaluation
The lab is one area that thrives on being cutting edge . . . new and improved and the best of the best! Hopefully, your input as the safety guru is considered as your lab evolves, because as processes change, so do the needs of the lab. When conducting an inspection of your lab, ask about changes since the last inspection – equipment, tests, volume, wastes, personnel, etc. All of this information becomes valuable when looking for precisely the right safety equipment.

Where is the greatest potential for chemical splashes and spills relative to where the eyewash units and spill kits are located? In the event of a fire, do lab employees know where the fire extinguisher is mounted? And is it readily accessible, or is it obstructed? Is the fume hood flow rate tested as part of a preventive maintenance schedule and is the sash height set correctly? Who keeps the paperwork? Are new process or equipment changes affecting other processes negatively?

Make both fire safety and emergency preparedness cornerstones of your safety efforts. Invite the fire professionals in regularly. Train on fire safety, emergency management, first aid, and lifesaving skills. Know your safe way out and drill with your staff. Don't tell them, show them you care. Make sure they have the tools needed for emergency operations and that the building itself is in compliance and has the needed safety measures for fire and emergency evacuation. As for non-compliant staff members, document this and divest yourself of them before someone dies. In a lab situation, there is little room for sloppy work.

Communication and Relationships
Open lines of communication are vital in keeping laboratories safe and operating smoothly. Safety professionals are often called upon to bridge the gap in communication between various departments to resolve all types of problems. Having a reputation for being approachable and getting things done will find you learning about safety concerns before a crisis presents itself–or at least when a crisis presents itself. Employees won’t be hiding incidents or avoiding the safety team, which, in turn, will create a more proactive workplace all around. Are you the approachable listener or the heavy-handed bad cop?

Relationships with key players will ease your challenges with the safety program. A good friend to have in your corner is the facilities/maintenance department. Coordination and teamwork with this group of individuals will make safety improvements throughout the organization seamless. This department is a firsthand witness to many of a facility's problems and can provide good feedback regarding areas of potential trouble.

A good example of this occurred last year at our facility: A pipe above our laboratory was leaking onto a new, extremely expensive piece of lab equipment below. The lab supervisor wasn't sure whom to call off hours because no one answered the primary radio/phone due to a manpower shortage. But after placing plastic trash bags and a chair mat over the machine, he called the safety department and said in a dry monotone, "It's raining in the lab. It is not supposed to be raining in the lab."

The safety department immediately made sure several maintenance staffers from other areas were made aware of the situation. They managed to quickly divert the leak, repaired the leaking drain pipe, and did the necessary housekeeping to help with cleanup. The lab equipment was spared; other than a little lost time, it was no harm, no foul.

The backup option was to send any needed samples to an outside lab for processing if needed. Quick thinking and strong relationships among multiple departments averted a very expensive mess. Personalities aside, make sure you know and talk with all of your departments regularly. You may not particularly like all of them, but professionalism counts--and you have to work with them and depend on them in a crisis. Make sure your workers such as housekeeping, maintenance, IT, and security know every safety team member by name and trust you enough to share information, because they will tell you many hazards that can be corrected before an injury occurs.

Is Your Lab Safety Training Being Taken Seriously?
Lab safety training should occur during new employee orientation and at least annually going forward. Add in any new process/equipment, too. This emphasis on safety will reflect your organization’s priorities and keep the topic of safety relatively fresh in everyone's mind.

When was the last time your safety training was updated? If you are still showing grainy VHS tapes on a VCR, you may want to reconsider so that your program will be taken seriously. You should be evaluating your training materials with regular frequency to ensure you are up to date with current lab activities and that your message is clear and concise for the intended audience. We've all seen good safety videos, and we’ve all seen really, really bad safety videos--which one is yours?

Beyond the video, what is the overall message? Your safety training should be conveying management support, optimism, precautions, and expectations. Encourage dialogue during training and remind everyone at the end of class that your door is always open.

Ask for feedback on ways to improve the training. Anonymous comments with no consequences will alert you to any shortcoming in your training package. Mentoring your employees one on one with an orientation checklist and a monthly (or daily/weekly) checklist is a great way to make safety a consistent element of daily work in the lab. Safety has to be a constant and not an add-on. The wider your employee pool (temps, students, etc.), the more important this is.

Lids, Leaks, Labels
When it comes to chemical safety in the laboratory lids, leaks, and labels take a priority. Are you able to tell what is in each and every bottle? Are caps on securely so as to not allow evaporation from a waste container or should a container be knocked over? Are containers marked as hazardous waste stored in secondary containment? Are acids and bases stored separately?

The precautions to exercise are many, but they are in place for everyone's safety. Executives, maintenance, and housekeeping all may find themselves in the lab at one time or another, and without an effective lab safety program, an unfamiliar employee could become an unsuspecting victim.

Now is an excellent time to review your hazard communication program with the transition from MSDSs to SDSs ramping up. In the event of a chemical emergency, would you be able to locate the appropriate information sheet for the exact chemical responsible for the injury? How long would it take you to find it? Do your employees know where this information is kept and the steps to take should an incident occur? Go ahead and dust off the HazCom binder before having that conversation with the workers in the lab.

Personal Protective Equipment
Once a hazard assessment has been performed on your laboratory to identify and control hazards, appropriate PPE must be utilized. Glasses, goggles, faceshields, hand protection, and a lab coat are common PPE items in the lab that offer added protection. Engineering controls include ventilation.

Are you providing a lab coat cleaning service for your lab workers? Do they have PPE readily available so they don’t run the risk of overextending the capabilities of the PPE? The cost of the coat cleaning and PPE is easily justified when you compare it to a worker’s compensation claim.

Strong Support and Oversight
Laboratory safety has the potential to be overwhelming due to the complex nature of the science performed in this controlled environment and all of the regulatory agencies that may be involved. It is in your best interest to keep your eye on things, keeping a closer watch on lab activities than you would some other areas in your operation.

Clean labs with informed employees supported by a leadership team promoting safety make for an ideal combination of leadership and execution. Sadly, we see in the news how bad things can happen when employees fail to follow policy and procedure, such as CDC's recent potential anthrax exposure and staph or even bioterrorism situations. Safety sets the foundation for consistency and regular monitoring of all aspects of lab operation.

This article originally appeared in the August 2014 issue of Occupational Health & Safety.

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