Within the next few weeks, we will be closing the books on 2014. As is usual with this time of season, many groups and journalists are anxiously engaged in one of their favorite end-of-year pastimes: Year in review lists.
One of the more applicable year-end top ten lists for laboratories is the Center for Disease and Control Prevention (CDC) list of the top 10 public health concerns over the last year. The threats that make this list are public health challenges that have the potential to threaten all of us. It should be no surprise to anyone that the Ebola outbreak topped the list. Although the virus was confined to mostly Africa, it did affect hospitals within the United States, and still does have the potential to spread quickly to other areas of the world if proper precautions are not carried out. The ineffectiveness of antibiotics in second place on the list should also not be a surprise to regular readers of this blog. The growing power of super bacteria and our helplessness against it should be a growing concern to everyone.
However, one particular surprise entry that made the list this year is laboratory safety. In particular, the CDC made reference to their own internal issues with laboratory safety, particularly around their handling of samples that contained smallpox and anthrax. The organization noted that laboratory safety is a “continuous process” and that it had taken steps over the past year to apply important lessons regarding the tracking and management of samples.
Besides end-of-year lists, the end of December is also a good time to establish goals for the coming year. Based upon the concerns expressed by the CDC, laboratories everywhere should consider setting goals for 2015 within the following areas:
- Safety Data Sheets – Laboratory directors should set a goal to ensure that every employee within their laboratory has access to and is aware of applicable safety data sheets. This goes beyond simply making the sheets available in a binder. It should include regular and active discussions about the risks and dangers associated with chemicals in the laboratory.
- Chemical Tracking – On the homepage of the U.S. chemical safety board is a section called “Chemical Accidents in the News.” Under this section is a constantly scrolling list of chemicals accidents that have occurred within the United States over the past few weeks. This constantly updated list illustrates that we have room for improvement in the area of chemical safety. Laboratory goals in this area should include better tracking, management of expiration dates and disposal handling. Other goals might include investing in a chemical management system that provides lab management with more data oversight of on-site chemicals.
- Tone at the Top – Laboratory safety should not start at the grass roots level; it needs to be exemplified and demonstrated within a firm from the top down. Laboratory directors should show their support for laboratory safety by leading through example. They should be the first one to arrive at safety training sessions and safety reviews should always be discussed during executive meetings. Don’t just talk the safety talk, but walk the safety walk.
The inclusion of laboratory safety in the CDCs top ten safety concerns for 2014 confirms that efforts to improve laboratory safety have been insufficient. To truly address laboratory safety, we need to focus on providing more information to our employees, tracking the chemicals throughout the lab, and setting the right tone at the top.
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