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Sunday, July 17, 2016

Noble’s 11 Rules: How to NOT DIE while working in your laboratory (PART 1)

Over the years I have worked in many laboratories.  One of my first jobs in the early 1960’s was in a quality control laboratory in a paint factory.  Since then I have been in university laboratories and medical laboratories around the world.  All laboratories one thing in common; they can be dangerous places.  They have toxic chemicals, dangerous microbes, breakable glassware, and equipment that can spew high voltage or spray dangerous bugs.  Laboratory workers put themselves at risk on a regular basis and odds are that at some point a bad thing can happen.

Lots of sources, private, government and otherwise make a lot of rules, but in my experience most of them are so technical and so boring, and sometimes so arbitrary that is understandable why some times some folks don’t read them and adhere to them as faithfully as they could or should.
So from my vantage point of understanding quality management and risk management and the laboratory working environment, and being an admirer of giants like Deming and Crosby,  I have come up with the following. 

I think they are more encompassing and easier to understand and accept and adopt.

1.    If you are not competent, you are incompetent.
This first rule is specifically for the academic laboratory, because they are the single group with the highest failure rate and represent the most dangerous laboratory environments.    Most studies going back 50-60 years point to research laboratories as where the bad things usually happen.

If you have not been trained thoroughly before being asked to take on research laboratory tasks, and have not been assessed by a knowledgeable and competent person as knowing what you are doing, you are a hazard to yourself, your colleagues, your worksite and the rest of the world.  You cost money, and you cost study validity.  You are a hazard.  What you are being asked to do would not happen in an industrial or medical laboratory.

By and large it is usually not your fault.  Most of the time your principle investigator is similarly incompetent because they never learned or understood about safety either.  It is all too often the blind leading the blind.  The old adage of “See one, Do one Teach one” is, was, and always will be nonsense.

If you are not sure what you are doing, and do not feel you are properly prepared, do not allow yourself to be pressured into barging forward,

2.    If you don’t look, you won’t see.
Every laboratory for the last 50 years has understood that some form of internal audit of equipment, reagents, housekeeping, competence is essential on a regular basis.  Maybe it is once a month of maybe one a quarter.  But it is a sad reality that audits frequently are not done, or if they are, it is a five-minute exercise. 

OK; most times nothing new happens, but when they do, if you don’t detect the problems before the cause the bad thing, you will probably detect them AFTER the bad thing has happened.  So its worth the extra 10 minutes one a month to make a screening audit, and if you pick up a problem, fix it. 

3.    OFI and learn.
In Quality management we understand that the single most important way to stop repeated error it to report when you have a problem, write it down, and then fix it.  We call that OPPORTUNITIES FOR IMPROVEMENT.  If laboratory staff are afraid that some one is going to go nuts or punish or belittle for reporting an error, it is not surprising that they never get reported.    We call that OPPORTUNITY LOST. 

4.    Be a mensch
Being a mensch is an Yiddish term for being an adult responsible person.  It distinguishes from being a fool.  A mensch does what is the right thing while the fool does not.  In the laboratory setting a mensch does the sensible and obvious things that prevents harm to themselves and others.  It is being the sort of person that you would like to work with.  A shortd list of what a mensch does in the laboratory includes:

  • Washes their hands
  • Is not embarrassed to wear appropriate personal protective equipemt.
  • Leaves their lab coat in a safe place
  • Doesn’t bring food or drink into the work zone
  • Avoids short cuts
  • Offers a helping hand
  • Supports and encourages reporting OFI.

5.    If you are not prepared, you can pay severely.
If there was a fire, would you know how to get out of your laboratory safely and where to meet, so that you can be accounted for?  If there was a small spill that needed to be cleaned up, would you know where the spill kit is?  If you got a splash in the face, would you know where the eye wash station is?  If there was a bad event, would you know who to call?  If you can’t answer these questions in the affirmative, you and your laboratory are not prepared.

This is the top five. 



  1. Loved your honesty. Thats a huge obstacle for most managers.....to admit that things need improvement. Its their responcibility , and better late than never. Please expand if you can on how to best write a safety statement , and how your Risk Assessments are the foundations to a successful Safety Statement.Sometimes this all gets very confusing. We need a chemical risk assessment,physical risk assessment, biological risk assessment, radiation risk assessment, pregnant worker risk assessment, lone worker risk assessment,at a minimum. Then outline in your Safety Statement how the lab provides the resources to counter these identified risks.Is this the best approach ?

    1. Many thanks for your comment. I agree that many "managers" are uncomfortable with the notion of identifying a problem, and then starting along the path of remediation, developing a corrective action plan and following through.
      But if you can't do that how can you possibly improve, and how can you really call yourself a manager?

      I have written in the past about Risk Assessment using a foundation of Severity-Occurrence (also called Severity-Frequency)Analysis, which for most laboratories is a pretty good place to start.

      You can find a good approach in the ISO Technical Specification: ISO/TS 22367:2008
      Medical laboratories -- Reduction of error through risk management and continual improvement or in ISO31000 Risk Management.

      After Part 2 of the "11 Rules" I have been thinking about Safety Statements. They might come next.


  2. Thank you. Article was interesting, informative and accurate making a very enjoyable read. In my experience 6S can be implemented and provide massive improvements in the laboratory but is still met with resistance by some staff who view it as 'extra work' whereas it should be built in to become 'routine'.