Laboratory Safety Survey Provides Insights into Importance / Limitations of Lab Safety Program
by Bryan Connors, M.S., C.I.H., H.E.M.
In February 2012 EH&E hosted a webinar, Best Practice Strategies for Laboratory Safety, for 250+ environmental health and safety professionals (EH&S) representing approximately 160 colleges and universities, research institutions, and biotechnology facilities nationwide. In conjunction with the webinar, EH&E conducted a survey to gain insight on how organizations structure and manage their laboratory safety programs. The survey covered topics including the frequency and process of laboratory safety audits, responsibilities related to conducting audits and correcting deficiencies, stakeholder support of laboratory safety programs, utility of and access to data collected during laboratory audits, format of laboratory audits (paper forms, electronic tools and submission), and roles of EH&S in the laboratory safety program.
An analysis of the survey data revealed several interesting findings concerning the role and status of the laboratory inspection program and the engagement of researchers, including the following:
1. 99% of EH&S directors agree that their knowledge of current laboratory safety conditions and incidents is essential to the success of their program, yet their access to complete, timely, and actionable information is limited.
There is a clear disconnect within some institutions between the recognition of the need for timely data on current laboratory safety conditions and incidents and the availability of such data. For example, while virtually all EH&S directors agree that knowledge of current laboratory safety conditions and incidents is essential to the success of the laboratory safety program, only about 50% of respondents agreed that data collection regarding laboratory safety program performance is efficient and working well at their facility, and less than 60% agree that laboratory safety performance data analyses produce actionable indicators for their organization.
We conduct numerous EH&S program audits and frequently find that laboratory safety programs lack a central, cohesive data management system. “Customers” of EH&S departments (the term “customer” can include researchers, department managers or chairs, etc.) often report that they cannot obtain the data they need to manage their EH&S challenges. The most common situations involved lack of access to records on training; lab inspections; and outstanding EH&S issues in need of attention. Lack of access to useful data slows the resolution of EH&S issues and can result in friction between the EH&S department and these customers.
2. Support and buy-in from Principal Investigators (PIs) for the laboratory safety program is strongly associated with effective management of laboratory safety risks.
EH&S program directors who agree that the amount of support and buy-in from PIs and lab managers for the laboratory safety program is acceptable are:
This area of the survey revealed interesting information about the attributes of successful EH&S programs in institutions housing laboratory facilities. The interrelated nature of EH&S programs means that attributes of these programs (e.g., data collection and analysis) affects outcomes (and perceived outcomes). For example, perception of the amount of “support and buy-in” from PIs and lab managers is related to utilizing safety performance data to produce actionable results (12 times more likely), and the perception that potential risks in the organization’s laboratories are used to allocate laboratory safety resources.
3. Generation of actionable indicators of laboratory safety performance is strongly associated with laboratory safety data collection programs that are efficient and work well.
EH&S program directors who agree that laboratory safety performance data analyses produce actionable indicators for their organization are:
There is a clear association between collecting, analyzing, and utilizing quality EH&S data/metrics and the perception of high quality EH&S programs. This perception also likely exists at the executive level of your institution, meaning that university / institution leadership is most likely already judging the EH&S program based upon the quality of EH&S metrics. The auto-administration of data collection and deficiency resolution will allow institutions to better use resources to solve more complex and meaningful EH&S issues. Better decision making tools are being developed and their acceptance and integration into EH&S programs will allow for better risk management and risk reduction of our EH&S challenges.
This survey summary highlights the importance of meaningful data and metrics, which clearly impact both the actual outcomes of the laboratory safety program and perceptions of its success. If a centralized, comprehensive system for collecting and managing data does not already exist within your institution, it should be made a priority.
In our experience, the primary barriers to implementing this comprehensive system are related to the administrative efforts associated with the collection and dissemination of inspection data, and the analysis required to provide the meaningful metrics. Our EH&S compliance teams have developed several methods to improve efficiency of data collection and decision making over the years, until recently all still require some manual data processing steps. However, recent advances in data collection and processing platforms have allowed us to automate the process completely. These advances include:
- Use of Microsoft SharePoint platform to auto-administer data processing including inspection finding resolution tracking, and the creation of a customized user interface to allow direct PI response. This eliminates the administrative overhead associated with policing findings, and generates the hard metrics needed by EHS management to focus on key areas for improvement.
- Use of the electronic forms and mobile devices to collect inspection data, including photos when applicable. This eliminates the paper form along with transcription labor.
A comprehensive effort to improve efficiency, centralize EHS data, access for EHS stakeholders to key metrics, and a focus on better and more meaningful “decision making metrics” should be considered as a priority for organizations with laboratories. Today, solutions exist that lower the barrier associated with this effort considerably.
Bryan is a Practice Director, Healthcare at EH&E. He has extensive program management experience in environmental health and safety programs in the academic, biotechnology and healthcare sectors. For more information, contact Bryan at firstname.lastname@example.org.