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Developing a safety culture in the lab

November 28, 2019

Our top ten tips on promoting safety in research

Although time consuming and often perceived as mundane, safety inductions and safety procedure incorporation are an essential aspect of any lab. Without a proper safety training programme, equipment can get damaged, or even worse, research projects or members of the team could be harmed. It is therefore important to instil a safety culture within a lab, emphasising the importance of safe practices and encouraging all members of the team to take responsibility for the safety of themselves and others.

According to a letter published in Chemical and Engineering News, researchers are 11 times more likely to get hurt in an academic lab than in an industrial lab [1]. But why is this? An obvious answer is that academic institutions often have fewer resources compared to industry, but this is not the only reason. Safe lab practice doesn’t have to cost a lot and could save the organisation significant sums. Another challenge comes from the frequent turnover of personnel in an academic setting, with new students and researchers joining regularly. Emphasising safety and ensuring sufficient training is therefore essential from the start.

What are the potential risks?

Figure 1 – The risks of a research environment include operating complex equipment
Figure 1 – The risks of a research environment include operating complex equipment

Like any workplace, there are a wide range of possible risks present in a laboratory, including the usual slips, trips and falls. In comparison to other industries like construction and manufacturing, science has a relatively low rate of serious injury [2], but it is still important not to overlook the potential hazards in a lab environment. A research environment brings with it a wealth of additional risks including operating complex equipment, the use of dangerous chemicals/biologicals, and undertaking experiments at high temperatures and pressures. Most incidents are caused by operator error, either due to lack of awareness of the risks or lack of implementation of risk prevention strategies.

Interdisciplinary labs face the added challenge of researchers with different levels of background knowledge in different fields – for example, biologists know the hazards of working with different bacteria but may not understand the explosion risks associated with certain chemicals. Familiarity with equipment can’t be guaranteed if the instrument is open for use across an organisation. A safety culture on its own is not enough, clear safety protocols and training systems must also be implemented.

How to develop a safety culture:

1.     Lead from the top. As with establishing any culture, leading from the top is essential – if the head of an organisation clearly complies with safety regulations, the rest of the organisation is much more likely to follow.
2.     Include all stakeholders in safety planning. Giving lab users the opportunity to contribute to safety planning and decision making will help to engage them with the safety culture.
3.     Clearly display important safety information. Making sure safety information is prominently on show can’t force people to read it, but it will demonstrate the importance of safety and ensure people know where to find the information they need.
A laboratory booking system can help facilitate this, keeping all safety information attached to the description of the equipment on the online system so it can be visible at all times. Rules of use can also be included and announcements visible directly in the booking calendar, making them impossible to miss – an advantage compared to mass emails.
4.     Make it easy to be safe. Be proportionate with the procedures you put in place so as not to put people off with excessive paperwork.

‘There is a need for a sensible and proportionate approach to risk management, in short, a balanced approach - this means ensuring that paperwork is proportionate, does not get in the way of doing the job, and it certainly does not mean risk elimination at all costs.’
Judith Hackitt, Chair of the UK Health and Safety Executive [3]

5.     Draw attention to good safety practice. Recognising examples of good safety practice through initiatives like ‘Lab safety star of the month’ is an easy way to remind and enforce the importance of safety.
6.     Make it fun! Health and safety is rarely considered fun but injecting some humour can draw attention to issues in a memorable way. A fine based system is one way to do this, with some labs making their researchers bake cakes for breaking safety rules!
7.     Learn from any mistakes. Following an incident, either within or outside of the organisation, it is important to prevent it happening again. Reviewing all incidents and implementing new measures should be standard practice.
8.     Ensure training programmes are completed. By only allowing access to certain equipment once training is completed or in the presence of a trained user, users will be forced to demonstrate safety training. Once again, lab booking software provides an automated system where different equipment access rules and schedules can be used for trained and untrained members. This also helps in interdisciplinary labs, where monitoring user training may be more complex.
9.     Prevent access out of hours. An important rule in most labs is ‘Never work alone’ [4] but the flexible nature of research often tempts users to stay out of hours to complete experiments. By limiting use of complex equipment to certain times of day, this can reduce the temptation to work in labs or use potentially dangerous instruments alone. Access schedules for equipment can be implemented using a lab booking system, for example equipment is only available on weekdays in standard working hours.
10.  Keep it fresh. It can be easy to forget safety rules and cut corners to save time, so regular safety refreshers are important to keep information fresh in the minds of users. Lab booking systems can be automated to remind users when training needs to be undertaken.

Figure 2 - Bookkit provides an automated system to aid safety compliance
Figure 2 - Clustermarket provides an automated system to aid safety compliance

There are obviously many safety regulations and recommendations that organisations should comply with, but instilling a culture where safety is the priority is an important start for any lab, be it industrial or academic. Management systems like Clustermarket offer a number of features to facilitate this.

Once the culture is established it offers a number of very tangible benefits. Obviously, the safety of all team members is foremost, but other advantages should not be overlooked. Reduced damage to equipment decreases down-time for repairs and saves considerable costs for new parts and replacements. Building this safety culture will also breed a new wave of researchers with a safety mindset, ready to spread this attitude across the organisation and further afield in future roles.

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References