A laboratory without a safety officer or safety program can be a dangerous place. Do you have a comprehensive safety program? Do you need to implement one? The College of American Pathologists (CAP) and the Clinical Laboratory and Standards Institute (CLSI) state that laboratories should have or be a part of a safety committee. This committee can be an institutional committee or it can be departmental. It can include a designated laboratory safety officer (LSO) or it can be comprised of other staff members who play a role in lab safety. As you can imagine, there are a variety of ways that a laboratory can design an adequate safety program into its structure depending on the size of the lab or the number of labs in the system.
Many questions arise when considering the best structure for lab safety. In this safety officer’s opinion, one should never underestimate the importance of safety roles in your laboratory. Do you need to have a dedicated safety officer? Yes, especially if you work in a larger reference lab or for a system of labs. Whether or not this person should be full or part-time really depends on the size of the institution. If you do work in a system, you should have a full or part-time LSO and safety representatives for each laboratory.
What does a safety representative do? These representatives (call them safety deputies, safety coaches, etc.) would have safety responsibilities in addition to their normal bench duties and would assist the safety officer in auditing, incident follow-up and by acting as safety role models for other staff. Larger labs could even have representatives from every shift. In this type of structure, the LSO and the representatives could comprise the Lab Safety Committee. Of course, this committee could also include other laboratory staff such as managers, quality officers, etc. Again, it depends on the needs and sizes of the labs involved.
So, what does the LSO do and why might it take someone dedicated to that one position? Remember, the safety officer is a part of the lab’s quality team, someone whose role is to improve the lab’s safety culture using education, training and coaching to reduce the number of incidents, injuries and biohazard or chemical spills. The LSO’s job is employee safety, which is fairly unique in these days where the medical field is consistently focused on patient safety. Only those in the Occupational or Employee Health department seem to have the same level of concern for the personal safety of laboratory staff.
Specific duties of the LSO can include the following:
-Oversight of lab safety policies and procedures. Continuing staff education of these policies is also important as regular awareness always improves the level of safety culture.
-Management of employee injuries and exposures. This would include following up with occurrences, looking at trends and making engineering or work practice control changes if necessary, and managing exposure monitors for those who use xylene or formaldehyde.
-Regular safety audits which should include fire and electrical safety, ergonomics, chemical hygiene, general housekeeping, waste management, personal protective equipment, and infection prevention.
-Staff education which can include spill training, fire extinguisher training, fire drills, and several other topics.
Another major role of the safety officer should be to act as the laboratory’s Chemical Hygiene Officer. OSHA’s Chemical Hygiene Standard (29 CFR 1910.1450) calls for the implementation of a laboratory plan that must include monitoring of the use of hazardous chemicals, maintaining a chemical inventory, ensuring proper chemical storage and educating staff among other duties. This role alone should convince you of the need for a laboratory safety officer. It is critical that someone in the laboratory can speak to the hazardous chemicals, their use and their ultimate disposal. The Chemical Hygiene Plan is both record and time-intensive. You may have a designated Chemical Hygiene Officer in your hospital or facility, but you will still need someone in the laboratory who can speak to the department-specific plan and all of its attributes.
In my travels, I have seen large systems with no integrated safety program, small hospitals with a very strong program and just about everything in between. You can imagine that the sites not focused on safety probably do not do as well on audits, nor, more importantly, are they the safest places to work. I am confident that if you are reading this, you want your lab to be a safe place, so I’ll give you my best advice. If you need to develop a safety program, start by assessing your needs looking at some of the above criteria. If your program is in place, look at it and be sure that it is the best it can be for your sake and that of your employees.
Daniel J. Scungio, MT(ASCP), is the Laboratory Safety Officer for a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia.