Safety precautions in the lab help prevent or avoid accidents and give guidance about what to do in case of an emergency. Like the Scout motto says: Be Prepared.

Lists of rules and procedural protocols are common tools to clarify lab safety precautions. These should be taught to all workers before they begin their job, and covered regularly in short refreshers like safety moments.

What Are the Laboratory Safety Rules and Protocols?

General lab safety rules cover the common causes of workplace injuries such a trips and falls, repetitive stress injuries, and falling objects. Additional rules should address the specific hazards of the lab environment(s) at your workplace.

The American Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) provides many resources for hazard recognition and solutions. These might include the proper PPE to wear for certain tasks, how to safely use machinery, and how to handle and dispose of dangerous materials.

These rules and procedures are critical, especially in dangerous environments like laboratories. Setting a regular, detailed lab safety routine wherein precautions are covered every time someone works in the lab—so potential dangers don’t become actual injuries or health emergencies—will greatly contribute to worker well-being.

That’s why checklists are such a great safety tool. The more stringently workers follow laboratory safety precautions, the safer they will stay.

But What if Things Don’t Go According to Plan?

Safety precautions for lab workers are a great start. However, people aren’t robots, and the world constantly changes, creating unpredictable events. Yes, there are emergency preparedness plans, for when something really bad happens. But what about when a hazard presents itself in the moment, after you’ve attended to your precautions but before a full-blown emergency?

Safety requires vigilance, which necessitates situational awareness. Pairing safety precautions for lab workers with situational awareness will ensure that your workforce is fully prepared for known and as-yet-unknown safety threats.

What Is Situational Awareness?

Situational awareness, or SA, has three components: perception of your environment, understanding of your environment, and conception of what is going to—or could—happen. It’s about being aware, being vigilant, and developing forethought. This all contributes to sound decision-making in the moment. It’s a way to be prepared for the inevitable human error factor or unexpected circumstances.

This concept traces its origins to military operations and aviation, but it’s now applied to a variety of situations that require people to think on their feet, especially to prevent or attend to dangerous circumstances. Self-defense, EMT, and driver training all use SA.

Any situation where there are numerous potentially hazardous factors—which may include workers themselves—and where a fast reaction or strategic thinking is involved is an appropriate environment for SA.

The lab, where there may be numerous hazardous activities going on at once in a high stress situation, or where some people may be very focused on a detailed task, is one such environment where things can go awry quickly.

SA and Teamwork

In a lab situation, where there will likely be many people operating at once, SA factors into teamwork: if you’re situationally aware, you may notice a hazard that your coworker hasn’t or can’t see, and you can help them avoid a dangerous situation. With many tasks, what one person always notices is something another person always misses. The more people practicing vigilance, the higher the chances that safety issues will be noticed.

Safety is a team effort, and SA is just one more way workers can combine efforts to keep their space as safe as possible.

Will Practicing SA Make Me Paranoid?

Being ever vigilant may sound like you’re asking your workers to always be on high alert, constantly scanning the horizon for the next horrible thing about to happen. This is not the goal. Using a driving analogy, this short video explains the appropriate level of alertness you’re looking for.

As the video notes, you do not want people on high alert. This leads to panicked, poorly considered (or not-at-all considered) reactions, which may make the situation worse. It’ll also lead to burnout and stress-related health issues.

The sweet spot is the relaxed or focused awareness state, where you’re taking it all in and, if something happens, you can respond in a calm, effective manner. This is much more likely to result in a good outcome and reduce the chances of other people panicking.

Practicing SA in the Workplace

To implement SA, start by teaching the SLAM technique:

  • Stop: pause and think through the task at hand and your environment
  • Look: observe what’s around you, paying attention to potential hazards
  • Assess: consider if everything is in place to get tasks done safely
  • Manage: take action when necessary reduce or eliminate safety hazards

These four steps are the foundation of SA. To help workers improve their SA skills, present potentially hazardous scenarios and walk workers slowly through these steps, getting their input as you go. As workers’ skills improve, make the scenarios trickier.

Situational Awareness: Beyond Safety Precautions in the Lab

A spillover bonus of learning SA for work is that it’s applicable to so many aspects of life. Awareness skills come in handy when dealing with small children, traveling in a big city, driving, or doing home improvement projects.

SA will work in tandem with your safety precautions in the lab to help ensure employee well-being at work, and will continue to help them stay safe in day-to-day activities.