According to OSHA, there are more than 500,000 workers employed in laboratories in the United States. These men and women are potentially exposed to a number of hazards: chemical, biological, physical, radioactive, and other types. In addition, repetitive tasks of production labs and high-volume analytical labs, as well as the challenges of handling research animals, can also lead to musculoskeletal disorders.
For lab employees to perform their tasks in a safe manner, they need to understand the potential hazards associated with the work. The ability to accurately identify and assess these lab hazards must be learned through training and encouraged by all levels of management. This is the core of developing a strong culture of safety.
The Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC) defines safety culture in its Safety Culture Policy Statement as “an organization’s collective commitment, by leaders and individuals, to emphasize safety as an overriding priority to competing goals and other considerations to ensure protection of people and the environment.” OSHA research has found that a strong safety culture is the best approach to accident and injury prevention and noted that organizations that have strong safety cultures also show fewer at-risk behaviors and have lower accident rates, employee turnover, and absenteeism, as well as higher productivity. The American Chemical Society (ACS) Task Force also provides 17 succinct recommendations for creating a better safety culture. Those recommendations include the following:
Attitudes and awareness
Developing strong safety attitudes and awareness is a long-term process. Continually teaching and highlighting safe practices and emphasizing their importance will build a deep, positive attitude and ethic in employees. Drawing attention to at-risk behavior and recognizing or rewarding safe behavior will encourage positive and safe habits.
Safety training is intimately tied to building awareness. Laboratories are unique and complex workplaces. Some level of training will always be needed. Do not settle for doing the minimum required by current regulations. Strive to make training interesting, innovative, and interactive. Keep up with new technologies and update all training regularly.
Learn from incidents, close calls, and near misses
When we take a few moments to think about it, it is evident that most of what we know has been learned from mistakes and incidents. Perform detailed and immediate investigations and follow-up for all accidents, close calls, and near misses. Use the information gathered for case studies and lessons learned. You will find these scenarios capture employee interest and force them to think about improving safety procedures to prevent future incidents.
Collaborate and involve
Involvement promotes a strong safety culture by reaching and immersing as many employees as possible. Establish safety committees and keep them active. Involve a large representative cross-section of the organization’s management and workers. Use the meetings to develop and revise safety procedures and policies. But keep it positive, interactive, and if possible, entertaining.
Communicate and promote
A robust safety culture needs constant promotion. The best promotion is by example. This loops back to developing positive attitudes, as promoting safe work practices goes hand in hand with having a good attitude and exercising safe behavior. Encourage all employees to advocate for and recognize safe actions. Communicate successes and (especially) failures openly. Give thought to publishing newsletters or bulletins. Conduct open case study and close-call discussions. Just keep the “work safe” and “safety first” messages out there.