What motivates laboratory staff to follow safety regulations?

A: It is important to remember that individuals have varying motivators, and lab leaders need to get to know their staff well in order to motivate them properly. That said, I generally see three reasons that motivate people to work safely.

The first and best way to motivate people to follow safety guidelines is to help them understand the real consequences of unsafe behaviors. Some people are motivated to use engineering controls and personal protective equipment (PPE) once they understand how dangerous an exposure to hazardous chemicals or bloodborne pathogens can be. For example, first aid could include a trip to the eyewash or safety shower—but it could also include treatment in an emergency room. Prophylaxis after blood exposure from an unknown source involves taking medications that have unpleasant side effects, and injuries on the job may mean time away from work.

One person’s unsafe acts can affect others in the department, as well. Dropping a biohazardous substance or spilling hazardous chemicals can have a negative impact on multiple people at the same time.

Knowing how much unsafe behavior costs also can motivate staff to work safely. When a lab employee takes time off work or incurs medical expenses due to an accident, this comes out of the lab’s budget. Replacing workers is also very costly. That money could be better spent on new lab equipment and staff salaries, and losing it negatively affects everyone.

Improper safety practices also can lead to costly fines. For example, if biohazard items are disposed of incorrectly and make it to the public landfill, the lab can be fined heavily—not to mention the toll on the environment that improper waste management might have. Lab accidents that bring the Occupational Safety and Health Administration to the door or also might mean hefty fines.

Lastly, some laboratorians are motivated to work safely because they don’t want to get in trouble. A safety culture where management writes up staff for not following safe practices can lead to better compliance for some. This should not be the motivator of choice, but it’s simply the truth that some people are most compelled by the threat of being reprimanded.

Besides education, what can leaders do to help staff follow safe laboratory practices?

First of all, leaders need to serve as an example for the department. That means wearing appropriate clothing when entering the lab to conduct business. It also means wearing PPE when performing work in the lab. Even if you’re only there for 10 minutes to hold a staff huddle, you should at least wear a lab coat. Show your staff that safety is important to you.

Leaders also shouldn’t ignore safety infractions. Sometimes you’re busy and just need to talk to a staff member about a hole in the schedule, so you walk by someone chewing gum or not wearing proper PPE. If you don’t say anything about that, your staff will notice, which in turn will undermine a culture of safety. Train yourself to notice issues, even when you’re in a hurry, and always speak up to address them.

Lastly, make it easy for staff to do the right thing. For example, if lab coats must be removed before entering a clean area, place hooks by the door for those coats. Place all PPE in areas where everyone has access. Use engineering controls such as counter-mounted shields so that all are provided with the same level of protection. The easier it is for staff to comply with the safety regulations, the more compliance you will achieve.

Dan Scungio, MLS (ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ), is a laboratory safety officer for Sentara Healthcare, a multihospital system in Virginia and North Carolina. He also works as Dan the Lab Safety Man—a trainer, speaker, and lab safety consultant. +Email: [email protected]