Lab Contaminants: What Are You Taking Home With You?

Does your lab facility appropriately control for contaminants? If you’re unsure, consider the following questions:

  • Do any of your employees use their phone as a timer or calculator?
  • Are individuals allowed to wear headphones while working in the lab?
  • Does your facility require notebooks and writing utensils to remain in the lab?

I’ve started incorporating these questions into safety trainings and meetings to increase awareness about potential contamination sources.

Safety professionals spend a lot of time and effort ensuring safety programs adequately contain workplace hazards. Additionally, companies make significant investment in facility design, engineering controls, and personal protective equipment to prevent exposure and material release. That said, even the best-laid plans can be undone by poor work practices, incomplete policies, and insufficient training.

Potential Contamination Culprits

  1. Electronic Devices:
    1. Cell Phones – Cell phones have become ubiquitous in the workplace. They are incredibly useful devices that go everywhere with us. Because of this, it’s common to see cell phone use in hazardous work areas (with or without gloves). Phones may also be placed on potentially contaminated surfaces (e.g., equipment, benchtops, etc.). Once contaminated, these devices leave the restricted areas and enter the office space, breakrooms, and go home with the employee. They are also rarely (if ever) decontaminated.
    2. Headphones – Like cell phone use, it’s common to see lab employees using headphones to listen to music, podcasts, or audiobooks while working. In addition to causing decreased situational awareness, headphones pose a contamination risk anytime they’re handled or adjusted while wearing gloves. Many facilities, especially those with infectious agents or manufacturing environments, have prohibited headphone use due to distraction, communication disruption, or “snag” hazards.
    3. Keyboards – Does your safety program have a policy for laboratory keyboards and PPE use? Are keyboards clearly labeled as “gloves on” or “gloves off”? Keyboards represent a very real source of exposure in laboratories if employees aren’t on the same page. Keep in mind that “gloves on” policies are better at protecting compliant employees.
    4. Other – Other electronic devices that often transit between hazardous and non-hazardous work areas include calculators, labelmakers, labtops, tablets, and barcode scanners. Having a policy for the use and decontamination of these devices goes a long way toward ensuring a safe workplace.
  1. Writing Utensils:

    Everyone has a favorite pen, but if you work in an area with biological or chemical hazards, I would recommend getting two favorites. If you need convincing, consider whether you have ever eaten lunch while using a pen or marker that was previously used in the hazardous work area. Habitual pen and pencil chewers should be especially wary!

  2. Maintenance Tools:

    Like keyboards and cell phones, it is worth considering whether your program should develop a specific PPE use policy for standard maintenance tools. What do I mean? Well, consider the following questions? Is the wrench for switching out gas cylinders used with gloves or without gloves? Does the “lab toolbox” sit on the floor or a potentially contaminated benchtop when not in use? What about the screwdriver set? Do you have a different set of tools for fixing laboratory and office equipment, or do the tools go back and forth? Controlling for these types of scenarios can add another layer of protection when reducing the likelihood of lab contaminants.

  3. Food Storage Materials:

    “No Food or Drink” is a standard topic in initial and refresher lab safety training. Training also covers labeling food type items used for research purposes (e.g., dry milk, canola oil, and food coloring) as either “Lab Use Only” or “Not for Human Consumption”. However, many training presentations and safety policies fail to highlight other commonly used items like tin foil, Ziploc bags, and Saran wrap. In my opinion, it’s far more likely someone would end up storing their lunch in tin foil or a Ziploc bag that accidentally made its way out of the lab, than it would be for someone to whip up a glass of milk from the dry milk box. Keep this in mind when developing policies related to food and drink products in the lab.

Why is it so Important to Contain Lab Contaminants?

In addition to employee safety, contaminants carried out of the workplace may impact children, immunocompromised or elderly individuals, and pets. The individuals may have a higher sensitivity to the hazardous materials than the general public. That said, any potential exposure (whether by employees or members of the public) is unacceptable.

Employees, their families, and the general public should never need to worry about hazardous materials that could be carried home or into public places. It’s the responsibility of every facility using and storing hazardous materials to take every measure possible to ensure containment. This includes assessing the potential need for policies restricting the use or free movement of the devices and materials listed above.

Strategies for Minimizing the Risk of Lab Contaminants

  1. Ban Personal Electronic Devices and Items Altogether

This is the most extreme solution (and I don’t recommend it in most cases), but it may be warranted in particularly high hazard laboratories. If you opt to go this route, make sure to provide an adequate alternative means of communication to make up for the cell phone restriction. Keep in mind that a flat ban without providing suitable alternatives puts a heavy strain on compliance (and usually employee morale as well). Call forwarding, Bluetooth devices, and two-way communication devices are all possible solutions in the right context.

  1. Work Practice Policies

An increasingly common policy states something to the effect of, “Do not handle personal electronic devices while wearing gloves or place them on potentially contaminated surfaces.” This type of policy provides a reasonable balance between utility and protection, especially when combined with sufficient awareness. Facilities have started moving away from hardwired phones (citing cell phone use), so it’s important to have controls in place.

Always include a decontamination procedure when developing this type of policy to account for any mistakes. The buzz of a text can be very hard to resist!

  1. Review All Potential Sources of Exposure

Make sure you are considering all potential sources, including maintenance equipment, carts, dollies, inspection tablets, barcode scanners, etc. Anything that could transit in and out of a hazardous work environment should be considered for  restrictions and/or decontamination procedures. In particularly high hazard work environments, it only takes one mistake to cause a potentially serious exposure or illness.

At the end of the day, it takes a group effort to ensure containment within the facility. Poor situational awareness or incomplete compliance can undermine even best policies and procedures. The more we can do to promote appreciation for contamination sources, the safer lab facilities will be.

 

If you would like to discuss lab contaminants, personal electronics policies, or other sources of exposure, please contact us at info@spotlightsafetyinc.com or spotlightsafetyinc.com to schedule a consultation or information session.

 

Photo Credit: Pixabay.com – JESHOOTS-com

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Corey is the Founder & CEO of Spotlight Safety Inc. He is dedicated to helping organizations evaluate and improve their safety culture and regulatory compliance.