Four and One Pillars of Lab Safety

The question of lab safety is how you get 100% safety out of 5% of the attention.  This problem shows why long safety documents, instructions, inductions etc. are limited at best.  New inductees are unlikely to remember 90% about the inductions ten minutes after they’ve left, and are less likely to remember 99% the next day.

So.  What matters is getting the maximum out of the little they do remember.  A good rule is that the essentials of staying safe in the lab should be able to fit onto one slide.

Here are the four-and-one pillars of lab safety I put into our lab:

  1. Mind your gas
  2. Mind your fire
  3. Label your containers
  4. Separate your waste
  5. If you see something, say something

In this lab, if I can get people to remember and practice these five points, then I have 95% of the risk under control.  The remaining 5% is different for everyone, and takes up all the time in the world.

I’ll do posts on the four at some point, but for the moment I’m just going to focus on the one.

If you see something, say something

It’s easy to get people to fix bad habits that can cause trouble.  It’s much harder to get them to adapt good habits, so they don’t get into trouble.  That’s unfortunately the case with this one.

“If you see something, say something” means that if a lab worker sees ‘something’ – an unlabeled bottle, an overfilled tray, a set up where something just seems ‘off’… he should say something.  Something to the worker, and something to me.  Something to me so that I can take a look, understand where the risk came from and make sure that it doesn’t happen elsewhere and doesn’t become dangerous.

The problem here is that lab workers are often too generous and too good natured and filled with too much team spirit.  They don’t want to look like they know better than their lab fellows, and they certainly don’t want to seem snitches or tell tales.

That’s admirable, but also dangerous.  Nothing you can do by way of inspections and walkthroughs will compare to having people on the ground telling you what exactly is going on.

To counter this, I always explain that I get it.  That in the moment, they will feel reluctance to speak up, and this is for good reasons not bad reasons.  I then reassure them that no one – not them, not the person they speak to and of – is going to get into trouble because of this.  The only aim is to neutralize any sort of danger before it gets out of hand.  I also tell them the story of the debombed magazine and how you really don’t need to be stupid to do stupid things.  Finally, I assure them that if they come to me – about anything – I will have their back if there is any trouble from the brass.

The only situation in which they will catch hell is if I catch anyone concealing a risk or a danger.  Then there will be the devil to pay.

If you can build this kind of relationship with your lab workers, you’ll have scores of eyes checking the lab at all times.  You’ll have a direct line of information on everything that happens there.  That’s the best safety safeguard you can hope for.



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