Wednesday, June 1, 2011

"It's not a safety issue; people are being inattentive"

This was a splice of conversation I overheard recently between co-workers in a friend's lab. At issue was the fact that several of the PhD students were continually bringing up safety issues that occur in the lab, which offends some of the other graduate students who work in it.
I have sat on this for some time, because I don't like to put my nose in such issues. I am more of an "avoid the issue until I feel forced to confront it" type. This comment, however, has stuck in my head for sometime and truly worried me.
Before going back to graduate school, I worked for an environmental emergency response company. For a while it had some safety problems. We had many small "accidents", until one day, we had a major incident that resulted in someone's skull getting fractured as a result of a fall. It was the result of a routine inappropriate action that we all knew wasn't the safest thing ever, but had always worked before and saved time. I remember arriving on scene seconds after the ambulance arrived. It was a sad day indeed. It ruined one man's life. I have never forgotten how I felt at that moment, how awful the safety shutdown that followed it felt. I never want to experience anything like it again.
The contributing factors to this near-fatal fall included poor assessment of the risk of lifting 55-gal steel drums over the railing on the 2nd floor down to the people working on the first floor of the shop, as well as the inattentiveness of everyone involved that they did not observe the potential hazard. Inattentiveness is perhaps one of the most serious safety issues, because it is so difficult to overcome. It is easy to fall into the trap, as our crew did, and believe that  because unsafe actions have not previously had a negative outcome they never will.
How do we overcome inattentive actions within lab groups and thereby increase the safety levels in our labs?
The first step is to simply bring attention to the issues at hand. This does not mean being accusatory or negative. No one need be singled out in public, but any and all safety issues should be, at a bare minimum, brought to the lab manager/supervisor immediately for correction and discussed in a group meeting from the perspective of "this is the right way to do things."  Every member of the lab should feel comfortable to mention  to their fellow lab mates that, for example, they need to wear safety glasses when reaching in the acid bath if they have forgotten. Every member should trust his or her lab mates to act in his/her best interest.
Creating a culture of safety requires that every member of the lab "buy-in" to the health and safety program and practices of the lab. It requires them being instructed on proper safety, as well as having it modeled by their peers and their superiors. It means taking some emphasis off safety being important only in terms of cross-contamination, and instead emphasizing that we work with chemicals that are every bit as dangerous, if not more so, than those encountered in my emergency response job.
Many students in  most University labs will NOT go on to be tenure-track faculty. Many may decide to pursue careers in industry, where they will be expected to follow proper safety protocols. These are not protocol that they should first learn when they get that first industry job. Proper safety training and good lab etiquette are things that should be ingrained in them long before they ever get their degree.
The first lesson of any safety program should be as simple as "Inattention can be deadly." It very nearly was at my old job.