Finding examples of safety non-compliance is incredibly easy. Just take a quick browse through some college and university science department websites. You’ll find dozens of photos of professors and students not wearing eye protection in the lab when they should have been, proudly displayed on a public-facing website for the world to see. (See the collage I made below – some are even wearing goggles on their foreheads.)

Collage of eyes without eye protection (PPE)It’s so easy to find this stuff that one could make a career of spotting safety violations. (Many have.) But after a while, such a career becomes exhausting. The more safety issues you find, more crop up. Perhaps that makes for good job security, but let’s be honest: a never-ending game of lab safety whack-a-mole is not the most fulfilling use of your life. Worse, it causes others to perceive you as merely a clipboard-wielding enforcer, always on the lookout for violators. Once that perception sets in, you’re fighting a losing battle. Sure, they may throw on a pair of goggles whenever you’re around, but you will succeed in producing perfunctory compliance at best. To be effective, safety needs to be practiced as a way of life and embedded as an organizational core value.

But the big question everybody has been asking is, how does one build a culture of safety? What if the climate of your organization is even somewhat antagonistic toward safety?

Lab Safety Culture: The Unexpected Key

In over 40 years of experience, LSI has found that a key element often overlooked in building lab safety culture is openness about mistakes. Admitting mistakes is like the soil in which a culture of safety can flourish. When you admit your own mistakes, people see you as more human, and safety rules as real-world advice, not something invented by someone sitting behind a desk in an ivory tower who doesn’t understand. Safety becomes an authentic way of life to be practiced every day, not an occasional performance.

Listen to James Kaufman, Ph.D., expand this topic in a sample of LSI’s course, “How To Be a More Effective Chemical Hygiene Officer.”

Of course, one of the biggest obstacles to openness is fear of punishment. One of the best ways to alleviate such fears is for senior management to be transparent about their own mistakes. Speaking recently at a seminar, Kaufman said: “When [others] see that it’s OK to talk about things where you made a mistake and you broke something, or it almost broke, and you talk about it as a warning, then everybody knows, number one, you don’t want to do this, number two, I’m as fallible as everyone else.”

The road to a culture of safety is a long one involving many factors, but when others see senior management comfortable in their own skin discussing their own slip-ups, the impact on an organization is huge. Many more field-tested tips and action items are available in LSI’s course, “Developing a More Effective Lab Safety Program.”