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Guest Column: Hand in Mouth

The following is an occasional series of guest blogs by experts in the medical clinic safety field. If you would like to be featured in this blog as a guest columnist, please email John Palmer at jpalmer@hcpro.com

The safety culture varies greatly from laboratory to laboratory. Most lab employees these days know that eating food or drinking in the lab is against most (if not all) lab regulatory agency rules and guidelines. However, it is surprising that many do not seem to understand that gum chewing or using hard candy or throat lozenges is also not permitted in a laboratory setting.

OSHA’s Bloodborne Pathogen Standard specifically states that “Eating, drinking, smoking, applying cosmetics or lip balm, and handling contact lenses are prohibited in work areas where there is a reasonable likelihood of occupational exposure.” Obviously the goal of this regulation is to prevent employees from obtaining infection via ingestion. A secondary goal is to limit hand to mouth contact while working in the laboratory. That goal is also to there to prevent ingestion infection.

So far there has been no mention of gum or cough drops in the standards, and you’re going to tell me your staff is going to argue against this.

In the National Research Council’s Prudent Practices in the Laboratory (1995), it states that “Eating, drinking, smoking, gum chewing, applying cosmetics, and taking medicine in laboratories where hazardous chemicals are used should be strictly prohibited.” In CLSI’s document Clinical Laboratory Safety (GP-17 A3, 2012), it states that “Food, drink, and substances that provide potential hand-to-mouth contact (including chewing gum and lip balm) are pro­hibited in technical work areas.”

Most inspectors of the laboratory will cite the lab for gum chewing or the like. An employee may respond that the gum was placed into their mouth outside the lab, but proving that would be difficult at best. It’s an inappropriate and unsafe practice, and it should not be allowed.

Again, limit hand-to-mouth or hand-to-face contact in the laboratory. What about telephone use? There are speaker options for phones which can help, but some labs are too noisy for that type of use. Disinfect phones often if that is the case.

As with any other safety regulation, if you explain it to staff, and if you make it easy to comply, your safety culture will improve. Educate your staff about these guidelines and standards and why they exist. Unfortunately, many laboratorians fell victim to harmful infectious diseases before these regulations were developed. Don’t let your staff become another part of those unfortunate lab safety statistics.

Dan Scungio, MT (ASCP), SLS, also known as “Dan the Lab Safety Man,” is a Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a multi-hospital system in the Tidewater region of Virginia.