Tim Collins of the British Laboratory Managers Association explains what can be done to ensure a safe laboratory
As a laboratory manager, Health & Safety matters will inevitably be very much at the forefront of your mind. However, it is a huge topic and it’s possible to get bogged down in the mass of detail, legislation, directives, COSHH, RIDDOR and so on, and overlook the bigger picture – why it is important and what you, as a manager, can do to promote and maintain a safe and healthy workplace.
Back to basics – it isn’t just ticking the right boxes. Fundamentally, Health & Safety is about people like you and me.
It matters because failure to take it seriously can affect anyone who might be injured or become unwell because of something that happens in the workplace. People’s attitude is probably the greatest influence on whether they will suffer injury or ill-health, so raising awareness and encouraging compliance and safe practice is worthwhile. There are legal implications too. The penalties of failing to comply with UK law can be severe, with prosecutions leading to hefty fines or even imprisonment. When safety is disregarded, the impact may be personal, practical or financial. Any or all of these could adversely affect how efficiently your laboratory runs. The effects may be short-term, with the absence of a colleague, or over an extended period, for example through long-term loss of confidence in your business or increased insurance premiums.
The Health & Safety Executive (HSE) state that “All workers have a right to work in places where risks to their health and safety are properly controlled.” One of the laboratory manager’s roles is to facilitate this.
A good manager will be committed to maintaining an overview of what happens within their laboratory, to ensure that everyone works safely and does not endanger themselves (or others), and that the laboratory operates both within the obligatory legal framework and any local organisational policies and practices.
But none of this will happen without forward planning, maintaining continuous awareness of events (normal and otherwise) in your laboratory through observation and effective communication with co-workers, and assessing risks regularly, particularly when personnel, practices or protocols change. Equally important is analysing what happened when things go wrong and, of course, rectifying problems, keeping abreast of current legislation and training requirements (including your own), maintaining appropriate records, and a raft of other tasks. You could say that, for a manager, the key to a safe and healthy workplace is first-class organisation!
However, this doesn’t mean that you must take on every duty yourself – indeed you could, and should, delegate specific tasks to capable colleagues, whilst retaining responsibility for ensuring these are carried out diligently and competently. Not only can this lessen the manager’s workload, but involving others empowers them to take responsibility, and to view Health & Safety in a more positive light and relevant to them.
There’s much to consider, which can seem daunting, but you don’t have to memorise everything. In addition to information you undoubtedly already have, there is a wealth of information and resources available to guide you. The Health & Safety Executive website is a good starting point, offering industry specific and more general guidance. The Institution of Occupational Safety & Health (IOSH) provides excellent advice and run useful training courses, including ‘Working Safely’ and ‘Managing Safely’. Many unions, for example UNISON also offer practical advice.
When considering Health & Safety, what might a laboratory manager need to be well-informed about?
Firstly, be clear about the difference between risks and hazards:
- A hazard is anything with the potential to cause harm to you or to your colleagues.
- A risk is the likelihood that a given hazard will cause harm or promote an adverse health effect.
Broadly speaking, hazards fall into three major classes:
Chemical – everything from cleaning materials, to acids, alkalis and oxidising agents, to laboratory drugs (e.g. antibiotics), solvents, and compressed gases. Chemicals may be toxic, corrosive, flammable, reactive or incompatible with other chemicals, or even explosive. Exposure to chemical hazards can occur during use or with poor handling, storage or disposal, and the potential for harm or injury can be significant if they are misused or mishandled.
Biological – causing harmful effects in humans, adversely affecting health. Hazards can include bacteria, viruses, parasites, fungi, plants or animals (genetically modified or not), medical waste, or even foodstuffs, and be toxic, infectious or allergenic. As above, poor handling, etc. presents the potential for harm, but biological hazards differ from chemical as certain hazards can pass the threat from person to person.
Physical – encompasses a wide range of hazards. These include electrical hazards, ergonomic problems (e.g. poor posture, manual-handling issues such as lifting/pushing/pulling objects, repetitive strain from equipment use), slips/trips/falls or falling objects hazards (associated with poor housekeeping), use/handling/disposal of sharps, temperature extremes (hot and cold), excessive/continual noise, poor lighting, mechanical hazards (e.g. using robotic or moving equipment), vibration, working at heights (even if just using a step-stool to reach material stored on a high shelf). To these we can add the potential for fire, radiation hazards, and dangers from ultraviolet light or laser use.
A further hazard class is sometimes added – psychological hazards created by work-related stress or a stressful environment.
Looking at risk, the HSE states that “You are legally required to assess the risks in your workplace so that you put in place a plan to control the risks.”
You are not expected to eliminate all risk, but you are required to protect people as far as is ‘reasonably practicable’. Evaluating the risk associated with any of the hazards above forms the starting point for your assessments, and you need to consider who might be harmed, and how. Then decide upon appropriate control measures to minimise the risk. But this isn’t enough – you must document the assessment and, crucially, ensure the control measures are put in place, and used. Finally, you will need to review your assessments periodically, and update them whenever necessary.
It is noteworthy that the risks involved with any laboratory work increase significantly with lone working. Managers should strongly discourage team members from working alone unless absolutely necessary. If unavoidable, procedures must be in place to accommodate this, e.g. a buddy system or regular ‘check-in’ times. However, procedures must both be followed and monitored.
Regarding workplace health, we must consider how to avoid work-related illness of all types. Physical illness is important (potential biological, chemical or physical origins should be monitored and health screening carried out where necessary), but don’t overlook the importance of other workplace stressors.
Mental well-being is vital, so think about work-life balance, interactions between individuals (e.g. preventing bullying/harassment), how tasks are planned/carried out, and consult/involve employees about how the laboratory should operate.
Encouraging behaviour which promotes overall health (e.g. diet, activity, smoking-cessation) is another matter to consider. This could benefit the laboratory through reducing absence and staff-turnover, and may help increase performance, employee engagement and productivity. Finally, the laboratory manager should ensure that all staff are aware of the organisation’s policies, procedures and rules and know who to contact if they feel they need help or support.