Removing the Fear Factor from Laboratories
The importance of laboratory research cannot be adequately described. Without laboratories and the research performed within the walls of a laboratory we would be living in a very different world without the many luxuries that we have today. Without laboratories strep throat would be a fatal disease and our life spans would be drastically decreased. We have had several unfortunate laboratory accidents in recent years which combined with the news media’s sensationalism has resulted in research laboratories developing a bad reputation. I cannot think of a better example than the news video that can be seen here.
What can we do to educate the public about how safe a laboratory can be if the research is performed following approved standard operating procedures and while wearing appropriate personal protective equipment? How do we remove the fear?
I would suggest the first place begins with security. I know many institutions where the universal laboratory pass is a lab coat. If you are seen with a lab coat on you have the master key to all the laboratories. How secure is your laboratory? Do you have restricted access to your laboratories? Are visitors allowed to move about your facility unescorted? Do you lock the doors to your laboratory when it is vacant? These are important items to think about not only to protect your laboratory from news media looking for an exclusive but to also ensure that nothing is stolen for your laboratory and used for illicit purposes.
The second step is to ensure your laboratory personnel are practicing safe science. Are your personnel wearing appropriate personal protective equipment? Are your chemicals stored and handled in an appropriate manner? Are your compressed gas cylinders secured and stored properly? Have all laboratory employees taken all required training? We may not be able to completely eliminate laboratory accidents but we can sure take steps to minimize them. These steps will also allow us to demonstrate to the public the efforts that we have taken to prevent laboratory accidents and protect our employees.
The third and final step I am going to discuss is one that is probably a new concept to many who work in academic laboratories and that is near misses. Near misses provide us with a unique learning experience that will allow us to change our behavior or modify our procedures to prevent an actual accident should a similar situation arise. Do you keep track of near misses in your laboratory? I am sure that anyone that has spent much time in a laboratory has experienced a near miss. Here is a perfect example. I know of an individual that came in to catch up on lab work during the weekend and was alone in the laboratory when he reached across the vacuum pump to turn it on. This pump was not properly guarded and he just happened to notice his necktie draped across the belt of the vacuum pump just before he turned it on. He immediately backed away, removed his tie and had to sit down to calm his nerves when he realized how close he had come to a potentially fatal strangulation accident had he turned the pump.
Please share any near misses you may have with everyone you know that works in a laboratory as it may save them from injury or death.
We can remove the fear of laboratories if we all work together and practice safe science.
I would greatly appreciate if you would be willing to share any near misses with me in total confidence. Please e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org if you have experienced a near miss. I would like to publish these in future editions of lab notes. Stay Safe.