Preventing EH&S Breaches: How Digital Tools Can Aid Hazard Communication

The CDC has drawn recent attention due to its mishandling of several types of infectious agents, revealing flaws in its safety protocols. Other facilities can avoid these problems by using digital tools to aid their EH&S procedures.
Image source: Flicker CC user CDC Global

Things haven’t been going well for the Center for Disease Control (CDC) lately. Last June, the agency accidentally sent live anthrax samples to a laboratory unable to handle the pathogen. Its infectious disease lab cross-contaminated harmless avian flu samples with a virulent strain of H5N1, which were then shipped to a USDA facility. And just last December, a lab technician risked exposure to the Ebola virus.

The incidents at the CDC launched a series of inspections at numerous federal facilities. The results were anything but ideal. For example, ancient smallpox samples were discovered in a storage room at the National Institutes of Health. Even worse, the safety lapses extended beyond improper storage and shipping of infectious agents. Dangerous materials were transported in unsafe containers. Scientists were found using expired disinfectants and torn gloves.

A report recently published on the CDC website cites failures on multiple levels, stemming from the lack of an integrated safety culture. To remedy this oversight, the agency plans to follow a list of recommendations, among them the creation of a safety chief position. It’s the first step to repairing a damaged reputation in the public eye.

Digital Tools May be the Answer for EH&S Concerns

There’s no doubt that a company-wide safety culture provides the best approach for complying with environmental health and safety (EH&S) practices. With current technology, laboratories can make use of digital tools to prevent potentially lethal mistakes.

  • Tracking samples: There’s no reason why smallpox samples should end up in a storage room. I’ve worked in many laboratories. Storage rooms are generally not known for being secure. How did they end up there? And if there hadn’t been an inspection, how long would they have remained there? Facilities can make use of a chemical inventory management system to ensure things like this don’t happen. This digital tool can be used for more than simply chemicals. Laboratories can keep track of dangerous materials by using barcodes to identify the contents of nondescript containers and scanning where the samples are stored. It can even track if aliquots are made and when they’re used. And most important of all, it can ensure that incorrect samples aren’t sent out to other facilities.
  • Promoting chemical safety: One of the deficiencies revealed by the laboratory inspections involved improper chemical use and handling. Laboratories that handle infectious agents are not like your house. You can get away with using an expired disinfectant at home. Disinfectants don’t stop working the instant their expiration date hits. They’re just no longer optimal. Labs don’t have this luxury. When disinfecting a biological safety cabinet, you must ensure those work surfaces are clean and sterile. Likewise, you need to transport dangerous materials safely. You can’t put them in improper containers or storage for the sake of expediency. A chemical management system can inform you of expiration dates and correct handling via safety data sheets.
  • Establishing training procedures: Among the suggestions listed in the CDC report is establishing standardized training programs. Every facility’s EH&S program should incorporate training into its culture. In fact, most probably do. The difficulty rests in making sure that training is followed and continually updated. In my previous laboratory, we maintained binders that kept track of employee training, including dates when those courses were taken and dates when those certificates expired. It’s a functional system, but chances are the training binder is kept in the supervisor’s office. Wouldn’t it be nice if employees could access their own training records at any time? This encourages lab workers to take ownership of their safety training, which further integrates a culture of safety throughout the firm. Using a cloud-based tool, such as a digital lab notebook, would make this possible.
  • Maintaining up-to-date protocols: The mishaps at the CDC were accidents. They could have happened to anyone, but they also could have been prevented. It’s important to ensure that the workers in your laboratory know the correct protocols to use. This is especially important with new employees. Hands-on training may work best, but sometimes information slips through the cracks. By storing the most recent protocols in a digital lab notebook, anyone with the proper credentials can access the information. This can prove to be a lifesaver.

Accidents can happen to anyone, but they can be damaging and lethal. Making use of available technology can help laboratories prevent EH&S breaches from happening in the first place. Are you interested in learning how digital tools like the BIOVIA Notebook and BIOVIA CISPro can benefit your facility’s safety program? Contact us today to learn more.

2 thoughts on “Preventing EH&S Breaches: How Digital Tools Can Aid Hazard Communication

  1. I think that digitizing the handling of hazmat is a step in the right direction. Key players at the CDC should spend less time focusing on disease control within the CDC and focus more on disease control outside the CDC.

  2. Sherese, I agree. Hopefully, they’ll follow their own recommendations and improve their internal safety culture.

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