Lab Safety Learning: Avoiding the Rush to Judgment

The more we all learn about lab safety; the safer labs will be (and the more we can create better dedicated lab furniture). Sometimes the best lessons come from unexpected places.

In this post, we spotlight an idea we came across recently. One of thinking beyond the rules when it comes to evaluating lab safety accidents. It comes from a safety article by Dr. Ivan Pupulidy, who investigates fatal firefighting incidents for the US Forest Service. In it, Dr. Pupulidy purports that a rush to judgment can lead toward an increase in accidents rather than an increase in safety.

Reevaluating the Investigative Process

Context often provides vital clues to the genesis of an accident, but Dr. Pupulidy found that more often the investigative process focuses instead upon whether established rules and procedures have been followed. This leads investigators to oversimplify these complex contexts and often rush to judgment regarding the worker’s adherence to established rules and procedures. The focus quickly becomes whether the rules were followed, rather than why they were not.

As any good researcher knows, unexpected results point to anomalies and possible complexity within experimental parameters. Those results merit further investigation rather than a systemic assignment of judgment or blame.

Dr. Pupulidy and his colleagues learned that their assessment of systems often missed important elements of the situation by focusing exclusively on policies and regulations. Instead, over time, they learned to focus on the split-second decisions made by firefighters facing unexpected situations. When the established rules and procedures did not apply, what actions did firefighters take and why?

The Currency of Safety is Information

Over time, Dr. Pupulidy and his team began to change their definition of safety and the metrics of success. When judgment and blame are held in check, and a process of curiosity accompanies the process, investigators gained the trust of firefighters and learned much more about the contexts in which those accidents had taken place.

Eventually, they began using a new phrase: The currency of safety is information. To close the gap between work as imagined (governed by those rules and regulations) and work performed (in those split-second, crisis decisions in the field), investigators learned to understand the dynamic nature of firefighting systems.

What Does This Mean for Lab Safety?

First, it means not moving too quickly to assign blame in a lab accident. In its place, approach the investigation with curiosity. Don’t rush to evaluate whether all the rules and procedures were followed. Instead, if you discover that some were not, ask why. When staff must recognize a situation as new and make sense of unexpected information in order to devise an innovative solution, they are doing nothing less than what is required of the observant researcher in your lab.

Second, it means listening to employees who express concerns over rules and regulations. While those rules were created because of past lab safety accidents, this does not mean that every rule fits all situations. Just as not all mass spectrometers will function equally to do the same job, not every rule can fit every complex context.

As Dr. Pupulidy concludes, “an accident [is] not seen as a choice, after all who would choose to have an accident? Rather it is seen as a natural outgrowth of normal system and human variability.”

Naturally, you will want to limit those variables to the best of your capacity, which is why we suggest you invest in dedicated lab furniture. To improve lab safety and reduce accident rates with our IonBench dedicated lab furniture, contact Tim Hawkins today by email or at 1-888-669-1233.