Addressing EH&S Standards: How a Digital Chemical Inventory System Can Help Prevent Accidents
Despite modern technology and recent advances, environmental health and safety (EH&S) remains a hot topic. The Ohio Bureau of Workers’ Compensation and Board of Regents recently awarded Ohio State University $578,000 to fund research looking into ways to improve workplace safety. It’s an issue that spans multiple industries.
I worked for many years as a research assistant in a military laboratory. Something that still stands out to me today is the amount of safety training required. During my first month on the job, I spent hours in one training session or another. In addition to the training assigned to new employees, we also had annual refresher training to keep us up-to-date. In the day-to-day workings of a busy lab, these refresher sessions were viewed as inconveniences. They took time away from “more important” things like experiments that needed running or data waiting for statistical analysis.
Dissemination of Information
This is an attitude that pervades laboratory culture. Safety training can often be viewed as something to be endured versus something that can ensure employee well-being and health. I had the fortune of working on a small research team. Other than the safety training assigned by the research institute’s directorate, my bench-side training came directly from my team’s principal investigator (PI) or his lead research assistant. New hires for the larger research teams weren’t always so lucky. Responsibility for their training was often passed on to someone else and would later fall through the cracks as a result.
Communication is key in overall laboratory safety. I had good relationships with my principal investigator and his lead research assistant, so I felt comfortable coming to them with concerns and questions. But employees with different new-hire experiences might not feel the same. Not only may they not be aware of channels available to them, but they may not know when something is wrong.
Accessibility of Information Regarding EH&S
Despite my access to resources and information, the mode of delivery wasn’t the most efficient. The bulk of my training took the form of oral presentations or thick binders of reference material. Even the quizzes geared toward testing my knowledge were administered via paper and pencil. Eventually, we transitioned to an electronic system, but the shift was neither consistent nor uniform across all safety areas.
Paper can be misplaced or lost. Reference binders can be tossed onto a shelf to collect dust. People with important information might not be present when you need them. This happened in my laboratory. A pipe burst and flooded one of our labs. The only person present on-site was our least experienced lab technician. She didn’t work in that laboratory nor was she aware of what chemicals it housed. She had no idea how to answer the safety officer’s questions about their potential risk.
The Benefits of a Digital System
- Keeping training and safety information in a centralized digital location eliminates concerns about misplaced and out-of-date binders. Laboratory workers no longer have to worry about replacing obsolete procedures or printing out new safety data sheets every year.
- Inventory and location of chemicals is automatically tracked. With unique barcoding systems, laboratory workers no longer have to worry about being unable to commit everything to memory, as in the case of my unfortunate co-worker and the flooded laboratory. The chemicals located in each lab can be tracked and linked to their safety data sheets, which contain information about potential hazards and risks.
- And most of important of all, a digital system decreases the chances of information slipping through the cracks. If all employees, new or old, are familiar with the digital location of crucial safety information, they can access it at any time.
Safety awareness and hazard communication play an important role in EH&S. Not only does it help ensure the well-being and continued health of your employees, it can also help prevent costly fines when those best practices are violated.