On October 29th, in light of recent high-profile biosafety violations, the White House published a memo detailing new guidelines for managing biosafety and biosecurity in the United States. At 187 pages, this best-practices document is robust, but there is skepticism that these guidelines will actually bring about the needed change in lab safety culture.
If you have tried to establish a positive safety culture in a research setting where previously there was none, then you know how daunting this prospect is. Employees become accustomed to working in high-danger situations. Helping to change day-to-day behaviors from an attitude of passive acceptance to one of vigilance seems to be an insurmountable goal. But not according to Tim Trevan.
Trevan’s article, “Biological Research: Rethink Biosafety” outlines a plan to change the safety culture present at these high-profile labs. His proposed solution? Collaborate with other organizations outside of academia (such as nuclear power) that have already overcome the challenges of establishing a positive safety culture. These proposed partner organizations have earned the title of high-reliability organization, or HRO.
In an HRO there is an expectation of safety and low-accident occurrences despite the fact that working conditions are inherently dangerous. HROs operate on several key principals centered on the concepts of mindfulness, thoughtfulness, and accountability. Trevan’s article goes into greater detail, quoted and reformatted, below:
“First, everyone within the organization constantly asks, 'What can go wrong and how do we prevent it?'
Second, workers are sensitive to any deviation from the norm, such as an unexpected change in the temperature of the reactor core in the case of a nuclear power plant, and learn to ascertain which variances can snowball into catastrophic failure.
Third, systems are designed to be resilient so that if they do fail, they do so with minimal damage and recovery can be quick.
Fourth, workers recognize that the operating environment is complex and changeable, and that mindlessly following standard procedures without paying attention to what else is going on in the environment can be dangerous.
Lastly, expertise is valued over seniority, with the recognition that it may be the newest or most junior member of a team who spots a problem or who knows best how to fix it.”
(from Biological Research: Rethink Biosafety, published in Nature)
Industries that have adopted this model have witnessed dramatic decreases in on-site injury rates. Trevan describes a case study of the metals manufacturer ALCOA in which a safety drive to use HRO-like principles resulted in a ten-fold decrease in workdays lost to work-related injuries.
Trevan believes that this HRO model can be useful for laboratory research, and he suggests applying it to the Center for Disease Control (CDC) as a means to change safety culture across the United States. As an initial step, he suggests applying the model to the Bioterrorism Rapid Response and Advanced Technology (BRRAT) labs, a subset of the CDC, as a means to change safety culture in the CDC.
BRRAT also happens to be the BSL3 lab responsible for the potential anthrax exposure described in the White House memo. It is possible that public scrutiny over the recent issues at BRRAT could be enough to spur the CDC to consider adopting the HRO model for BRRAT research. Ideally, the HRO model would result in an improvement in safety in BRRAT, which would then leave the CDC more inclined to try the model itself.
Close collaboration (or a lack thereof) can mean the success or downfall for this type of change. We can look at the This American Life episode #561: NUMMI as a case study of the challenges of adopting another company’s safety culture. Below is a brief summary of the episode:
What happened? Though the original employees who visited Toyota’s plant were converted, they were unable to translate the things they had learned to other GM teams. Without the culture shock of seeing the Japanese system at work, the motivation to change wasn’t strong enough for the new GM teams.
The moral of the story? It is not enough that an implementation like this works once. There must be thoughtful analysis about cause of the initial success so that it can continue to succeed in the future. Without this awareness, time-sensitive windows (like public pressure to change the safety culture of a government agency) might close before any lasting change can occur.
While we can certainly hope that there will be widespread and successful adoption of a positive safety culture for lab across the country, there is no need to wait for the CDC to act first. If the HRO model sounds appealing to you, I encourage you to learn more about it, share successes and failures with your coworkers and peers, and collaborate to make your own workplace safer and more productive.
If you’re interested, I’ve provided below some links to more information about HROs:
Overview of different HRO models and schools of thought.
Suggestions on practically implementing HRO principles in your workplace (about hospital work, but principles are still helpful).
Managing the Unexpected – a book about developing high-reliability. Preview available through Amazon.
Matt Segal is a Marketing Specialist for BioRAFT. Before joining BioRAFT, he conducted molecular biology research at the Immune Disease Institute at Harvard Medical School, the La Jolla Institute for Allergy and Immunology, and Boston Children’s Hospital. Matt will be continuing to blog and manage BioRAFT’s social media accounts.
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