In this guest column, Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, laboratory safety officer for Sentara Healthcare, a multihospital system in the Tidewater region of Virginia and otherwise known as “Dan, the Lab Safety Man,” discusses the important issues that affect your job every day.
October is here, and it’s that time when you should be raising awareness about fire safety in the laboratory. It’s National Fire Safety/Prevention Month, and fires occur in high enough numbers in the United States (even in laboratories) that we need to pay attention and focus on prevention.
The College of American Pathologists uses eight checklist standards to cover lab fire safety, and even though they have made some changes in the past few years, all of the elements are there to help you prepare and protect your staff in the event of a fire. There are many fire sources in the lab setting, and even more fire accelerants, and those alone should help us realize the importance of fire safety knowledge. However, many go through their daily work routines without giving it a second thought. When the fire occurs, they will not be ready, and the results could be devastating.
Fire safety training should occur with all staff. OSHA requires that if fire-fighting equipment is in the facility, staff must have documented training. CAP “strongly recommends” hands-on fire extinguisher training tht includes actual activation of the equipment. I agree, and I also recommend that this is performed at least annually. Operating a fire extinguisher is not a natural process, and some people struggle with it. Extinguishers can be heavy, and pulling the pin can sometimes not be a smoot, easy motion. Staff should practice these tasks and not experience them for the first time in an actual fire event. Most use the acronym PASS (Pull, Aim, Squeeze, and Sweep) to help people remember how to use an extinguisher, but there are other things to consider as well. If the fire is larger than the size of a waste basket, get out and let the professionals handle it. Never use two fire extinguishers at the same time, the force can actually push burning debris back onto someone who is trying to stop the fire. Also, make sure you are always between the fire and an exit- never let yourself be trapped in the room by the fire. These are training nuances that shouldn’t be herd once during a lab employee’s career.
CAP used to enforce the actual evacuation of each employee in a fire drill, but that is no longer required. Now an annual documented assessment of the evacuation route is considered sufficient. Again, a fire situation, especially one where evacuation is necessary, is not when you want staff learning for the first time how to get to a designated evacuation location. There should be primary and secondary routes, and if staff has not walked them, they may not know how to go there safely and efficiently in an emergency. Walk with staff annually so they know where to go- take a few people at a time, you do not need to stop work to make this happen.
OSHA and CAP do require annual fire safety training. That training should include knowledge of other fire-fighting equipment (such as fire blankets if provided), the location of fire alarm pull stations, and staff responsibilities during a fire. It is considered to be acceptable to review all of that safety information via a computer or a test. Again, I state strongly that the annual review needs to be more comprehensive in order to be truly effective. Fire drills are often required via local fire code or hospital and clinic regulatory agencies. Make sure your staff is participating to the fullest extent.
Fires do occur, and it is never where or when you might expect. The element of surprise is enough of an obstacle when facing a situation. With regular training and drills, laboratory staff can overcome that one obstacle and not run into more- not knowing how to use a fire extinguisher or not knowing what to do or where to go. Those obstacles are life-threatening, and they can and should be avoided with regular safety training and drills.