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Managing laboratory safety in your hospital


September 1, 2010

Editors note: The following is an excerpt from the Complete Guide to Laboratory Safety, Third Edition, by Terry Jo Gile, MT(ASCP), MA Ed. You can purchase the book by visiting www.hcmarketplace.com.

Becky worked in an independent lab in Cedar Rapids, IA. The lab was located in the downtown area about a mile or so north of the Cedar River. One summer, the city was hit with record-breaking floods that rendered the town helpless. The river overflowed, and no amount of sandbagging helped. Homes and businesses were lost, and one of the hospitals had to evacuate as it took on water. About 35,000 homes and businesses lost power, including Becky’s lab, which was in the basement of a large office building that included several doctors’ offices. With no electricity, the elevators didn’t work, and there was only minimal lighting in the hallways and stairwells. There was no air-conditioning or airflow, no generator, and the auxiliary lights lasted about two hours. Becky had to figure out what to do with thousands of dollars of reagents, patient samples, and microbiology plates that had to be read. She and her staff did the following: 

  • Reagents were divided among the employees, who took them home and stored them in their refrigerators until power was restored 
  • Patient samples were driven to a satellite lab 30 minutes away and run there 
  • Microbiology plates were read by flashlight 
  • Cell phones were used to call results 


Lessons learned from this experience 

  • Plan for a disaster, however remote it might seem 
  • Organize backups for the backups 


Becky’s team now has greater foresight, but it still needs training on what to do when a disaster strikes. As lab manager, it is your job to ensure that responsibility and accountability are assigned for all key tasks of your safety program, including the following: 

  • The safety officers you appoint 
  • The policies and procedures you put into writing 
  • The formal staff training and awareness-building programs you need to educate and motivate staff about safety issues 
  • Procedures for regular safety audits and inspections of your facility, including equipment, stored chemicals, and supplies 
  • Procedures to investigate accidents and illnesses promptly 
  • Processes to create and retain accurate records in accordance with federal and state laws 


Safety program 

Safety needs to be a part of the laboratory culture. Although we all know how important safety is, we often take it for granted and sweep good safety protocol by the wayside. Consistent neglect can be devastating.

For example, in the companion book to this volume, Lab Safety Training Made Simple, there is a story of a laboratorian whose failure to properly attach a lid to a jar resulted in a vapor explosion. Such an error is certainly a failure of training, but it also could be a result of neglect. 

Failing to have an adequate safety program can spell real trouble. Your safety program encompasses everything covered in this book—your written manual containing safety policies and procedures; your procedures for chemical hygiene, fire safety, and emergency response; regular inspections and audits; thorough and prompt investigations after accidents or emergencies; and careful record keeping. Effectively managing all of these tasks means thinking of them as a formal program that is central to your lab’s success. It means ensuring you have the right people, processes, and equipment in place, and that everyone working in your lab—including employees of outside contractors who perform services for you—is properly trained and motivated to take safety seriously.

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