Establishing Mindfulness: Improving Safety Culture with Tools from HROs

Improving Safety Culture with Mindfulness

This is part 2 in our continuing series looking at the model of the High Reliability Organization (HRO) as a resource for laboratory safety management. Part 1 can be found here: "What is an HRO?"

Before coming to BioRAFT, I was a researcher in molecular biology. One thing I have seen over and over again is how easily researchers (including myself) forget the dangers that are around them. It's easy to look at a large bottle of hydrochloric acid and think, "well that's something I probably shouldn't get on my face," but many of the hazards in lab work seem less immediate. When you work among these hazards day in and day out, it's hard not to ignore them the same way you'd learn to ignore a creaky desk chair. Staying alert to all of these dangers requires too much attention and would be too distracting, right?

Enter the High Reliability Organization (if you haven't read our previous blog post explaining what High Reliability Organizations are, now's a great time to do it). A consistent accomplishment of the High Reliability Organization is its ability to create a safe workplace in an intrinsically dangerous environment (like research labs). High Reliability Organizations use guidelines to change the perspective and behavior of their workers and administrators, which adds up to a safety environment that is constantly improving and self-correcting.

A keystone trait of the High Reliability Organization (HRO) is mindfulness. Simply put, mindfulness is the opposite of mindlessness – think of the many accident reports starting with the phrase "I just wasn't thinking." There are plenty of times when accidents feel 100% avoidable if there were just some way to get the people involved to stop, think, and act on the feeling that something isn't right.

Consider the following hypothetical scenario:

A researcher is performing an experiment with high concentration pseudotype lentivirus in an appropriate biosafety hood. During the experiment, the researcher notices that the sleeve of her PPE has been pulled up, revealing bare skin on her wrist. Shortly after, the researcher notices that the pipette she is using isn't forming a good seal with the tips, causing an occasional drop of liquid to fall. The researcher transfers some of the lentivirus to a tube she is working with, bringing the pipette over her wrist. A drop of liquid falls from the tip and lands on her bare wrist, resulting in a direct exposure to the concentrated lentivirus.

During an experiment, it's easy to brush aside seemingly insignificant problems. Significant accidents are often not the result of a single poor decision, but rather they're the sum of smaller, less significant poor decisions that can be tough to catch in the moment. When researchers have their attention divided between several technically challenging, time-sensitive experiments, it becomes even easier to write off the small stuff.

Mindfulness is a tool you can use to stay focused and catch small problems before they escalate and combine into a larger problem. In the hypothetical viral work scenario, the researcher could have covered up her sleeve, gotten a new pipette or new tips, or made sure not to lift the pipette over her wrist. Taking any of these precautions would have prevented the incident, but at each point, the researcher determined that the risk of exposure was too low to intervene.

When you hold a mindful attitude, what you're really doing is improving your ability to focus, observe, analyze, and act. You'll be better at identifying and reacting to distractions as well. If the distraction is insignificant, it will be easier to go on working without losing concentration. If the distraction is a significant one, it will be easier for you to act on it and you'll feel rewarded for making a good choice.

Talking about the benefits of mindfulness is easy enough, but how do you actually put it into practice? If I had to guess, I'd say it's likely that you or your colleagues are already practicing some of these principles. One of the most remarkable things about the HRO is that in many cases, its adoption is only a partial one. Still, beginning any new habit is tough, so here are four ideas to get you started applying mindfulness to your daily work.

1) Recognize professional and personal distractions. What's going on at work today that could distract you or your coworkers from providing your full attention to the tasks at hand? Have you had any recent challenges or conflicts in your personal life? Try to anticipate how these disruptions might occur. Being prepared for the disruptions will provide you with a greater amount of focus as you work. This focus will make it easier for you to notice and react to minor problems (side bonus – many people find that this also helps them be more productive).

Tip: Write down 2-3 concerns at the start of your day and then check in later to see if these things interfered with your concentration, and how. This will make it easier to recognize and preempt distractions in the future.

2) Cultivate strong reactions to minor problems. We tend to react to problems with a proportional amount of force. A minor problem receives a weak reaction, while a major problem receives a strong reaction. Often these weak reactions are not enough to solve a minor problem when it occurs. In other words, just noticing the exposed skin is not enough to magically cover the skin up.

Instead, be in the habit of approaching these minor problems with a disproportionate amount of force. This makes it that much harder for minor incidents to pile up into a major accident. Certainly, you should use your judgment to ensure you aren't going overboard, but this habit will make it easier to act against the problems that normally go unaddressed. Notice the exposed skin, but instead of just noting it, stop, change your gloves, fix the problem, and then return to work.

Tip: When you see a small problem, try to imagine ways it could escalate. When you are more mindful of possible negative outcomes, it becomes easier to act in the moment.

3) Appreciate your gut feelings. Instincts generally aren't enough proof to make a decision one way or another, but they are an excellent chance to slow down, take a breath, and really try to figure out if there isn't something wrong. Cherish these moments specifically because of how fleeting they are and how informative they can be. Instead of pushing aside a gut feeling, acknowledge it and try to draw it out until you can identify its source. This can be a vital first step in stamping out a problem (by applying a disproportionate amount of force like we discussed earlier!).

Tip: Talk out loud to yourself or a friend to figure out what's causing you concern. Forcing yourself to put your feeling into words can make it easier to illuminate the sound reasoning behind something that was previously just a hunch.

4) Break the cycle. Small problems pile up into larger ones, and sometimes a few slip by without being fixed. The more you convince yourself that minor problems are not a concern, the harder it is to admit that these problems should be addressed. Though one minor problem may have gone unchallenged, encountering more should set off increasingly louder alarm bells that you must take action. Find the strength to admit that there is something wrong with the current situation, and then apply a strong reaction to the problem at hand.

Tip: First, think back to earlier problems in the chain and consider how you could have solved them. This will get you into a problem-solving mindset and make it easier to approach and solve the current issue.

Stay tuned! Coming up in our next article, we'll introduce you to the 5 principles of HROs. These principles make it easy to pack up tough-to-approach issues into easy-to-digest slices so you can solve problems instead of feeling like you don't know where to start.

  1. Preoccupation with failure
  2. Resistance to simplification
  3. Sensitivity to operations
  4. Deference to expertise
  5. Commitment to resilience

Want to get others interested in mindfulness? You can…

  • Share this article, as well as some of the ones listed below.
  • Provide mindfulness "Checklists" to make it easier to track goals and concerns ([if checklists worked for Benjamin Franklin] ( then they could work for you too).
  • If you're participating in or leading a training course, try having a discussion where you imagine what might go wrong at different points, and how those problems would be addressed.

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Do you already practice a form of mindfulness? Know anyone who has had success with it? What resources have you found? Let us know in an email to or a comment on Facebook, Twitter, or LinkedIn

Below are some great jumping off points for getting your mindfulness up and running:

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