Discussing general safety concerns in the laboratory

Q: I have been assigned to represent the laboratory on the hospital safety committee. One of our projects this year is to review injuries and incidents related to the lab. That will give us an idea of what our problems have been, but Im wondering about the general areas of safety concern for a laboratory.

A: There are, of course, some obvious hazards in laboratory medicine. Because they handle infectious materials, laboratorians run an even higher risk than most hospital personnel of exposure to infection. Exposure to bloodborne pathogens is of pre-eminent concern, reflected in the recent modifications to the OSHA Bloodborne Pathogen standard. With the recognition of its prevalence, hepatitis C has joined the list of bloodborne pathogens to which laboratorians risk exposure. According to HepNet (www.hepnet.com), some experts believe it is now the most commonly parenterally transmitted pathogen, in part because testing samples may be contaminated with hepatitis C virus.

Perhaps second to exposure to infectious agents is exposure to noxious chemicals, used in testing and clean-sup. Chemical hygiene has to be an integral part of any laboratory safety plan, as does management of radioactive waste in labs that employ radiotracers. 

Beyond that, the range of safety issues depends largely on the physical environment, and comes from three major areas: equipment integrity, plant management, and ergonomic design.

With the variety of equipment in even the most limited laboratory, and the fact that laboratory staff regularly troubleshoot equipment, it should be no surprise that injuries related to faulty equipment are not uncommon in the lab environment. 

Electrical injuries can result from faulty wiring, and can cause serious injury, even death. Regular inspection of equipment for electrical integrity can help reduce the potential for injury, as can the presence of ground-fault interrupters near the (ubiquitous) plumbing in laboratories. Staff should be well trained in electrical safety before doing any troubleshooting on instruments, and should be wary of doing any work on an instrument that trips a circuit breaker or blows fuses. 

Equipment fatigue and failure can also cause mechanical injury. Centrifuge rotors that are worn or unbalanced can cause catastrophic failure, including the discharge of fragments of the instrument or its contents into the surrounding lab. Older centrifuges, often the last piece of equipment to be replaced in a lab, do not always have adequate safety shielding to prevent injuries to the operator. Heat sources for sterilizing loops in the microbiology lab, if not adequately isolated and maintained, can be sources of fire or burns.

As in any environment, unexpected changes can result in unexpected injury. The lab is not immune to slip and fall injuries from wet floors, especially if an instrument leaks fluid. One of the most unusual injuries I ever encountered in a lab was a laceration of the face that a technologist sustained when a heavy reference book fell off a shelf above the chair in which she was seated and struck her at the corner of the eye. 

Its impossible to anticipate every situation that might cause such accidents, but maintaining a clean, uncluttered environment, and paying attention to the physical integrity of surfaces and space, will reduce the risk of mischance.

As laboratorians spend more time on their feet and more time at computer screens, back injuries, carpal tunnel syndrome and eyestrain are becoming more common. Creating a comfortable working environment becomes a challenge when staffers vary greatly in their physical requirements, height, and duties. 

One of the best ways to prevent injuries is regularly inquire of staff how they might change their environment to be more comfortable. Sometimes simple changes, such as wireless or ergonomic keyboards, or providing steps for shorter employees to accommodate the standard height of worktables, can work wonders.

Barbara Harty-Golder is a pathologist-attorney in Sarasota, FL. She
directs the clinical laboratory at Health South Rehabilitation Hospital in Sarasota, and maintains a law practice with a special interest in medical law. She writes and lectures extensively on healthcare law, risk management, and human resources management.

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