Guest Column | May 8, 2000

LAB SAFETY REVIEW: Design is the Key to Safer Lab Environments

LAB SAFETY REVIEW: Design is the Key to Safer Lab Environments

By Bevan D. Suits



Lab Safety Review is a new monthly column on Laboratory Network.com. Each edition is written by a specialist in this important field.


When it comes to communicating safety issues, laboratory managers face a daunting challenge. To get the message of safety across they must rely on the psychology of perception and comprehension—processes that are only imperfectly understood. They must also confront a certain laxness about safety on the part of lab personnel. Small wonder then that the number one OSHA infraction, by far, that U.S. companies pay for is improper safety communication.

Fines aside, labs also pay enormous sums to procure and distribute material safety data sheets (MSDS). Yet these documents are typically overly long and convoluted, which is why they are universally disliked and often ignored. Clearly, companies that own and operate labs are spending a lot of money without communicating effectively.

Successful communication will be taken personally by its target audience. If it is read with interest and appreciation, it will influence behavior. Avoidance of information, for whatever reason, may contribute to false confidence when it comes to dealing with materials hazards. Two social scientists recently published research showing that an individual's confidence can be inversely proportional to his or her competence. In other words, the more people claim to know, the less they likely do. In a lab, this can translate into attitudes about safety practices based solely on personal experience (or lack of it). An individual's long spell without an incident may be due to good safety practice or to good luck. Either way, people who have never experienced an accident or emergency can make unwarranted assumptions about their own abilities and the abilities of those around them. Getting lab workers to admit that they are uncertain about how to deal with certain hazards may be the first step toward a safer lab.

A good way for lab managers to identify and ultimately correct bad attitudes toward safety is to conduct a professionally implemented survey of employee attitudes. This can help to establish a baseline understanding of prevailing attitudes. This will influence how safety-training programs are managed so as not to insult the intelligence of lab personnel, which will boost general respect for safety.

The MSDS as Both Source and Obstacle
By providing user-friendly access to safety information, lab managers are more likely to get people to shed cavalier attitudes and pay due respect to safety issues. The MSDS, with its dense format, its ridiculously overstated information, sometimes about such dangerous compounds as H2O, is a big contributor to negative attitudes, even while it contains valuable information. Historically, human factors were never considered in the development of the MSDS. While there is clearly high demand for much of the information in the MSDS, the messages do not reach its audience effectively. As a young researcher's experience grows over time, without dependence on MSDS and other safety literature, that individual may be less likely to rely on official safety information.

In 1998, industry pressures in the U.S. forced Congress to consider allowing for variations in the way MSDS information is presented. The result was the Wired Act (Workplace Information Readability and Electronic Dissemination Act, S.1855), which allowed the information to be made available electronically and in "other alternatives to paper copies." This has enabled the vast ocean of MSDS data to be managed more easily. But junk posted online is still junk. And is it really more accessible in an emergency situation? Resolving this issue is beyond the skills of politicians, chemical companies and their legal departments.

Safety information in many labs is often hard to read and comprehend. As a result, it is often ignored. (Source: Graphics Lab)

In tackling the problem of poorly conceived safety data sheets, insights from the field of industrial design can be brought to bear. This discipline studies how human factors such as perception and behavior relate to product design. Together with graphic design—the art and science of visual communication—both professions are well equipped to identify and solve problems in lab communications.

Simplicity and Elegance Are Hallmarks of Design Approach
Designers look for the simplest and most effective solutions possible. Simplicity and elegance are key to the clarity that is required for communication to happen, especially in a complex lab environment. Instead of solutions that require compliance on the part of users, successful design provides solutions that meet the needs of users, adapting to their existing psychology and behavior patterns. In other words, they are user-friendly.

A safety program requiring vast amounts of training, along with authority figures hovering about to monitor compliance, is less apt to succeed than a design approach, which provides solutions in any appropriate medium. For example, a design team hired to enhance lab safety will research the total environment and working process to develop solutions that may range from graphics to products to environmental design. (For examples of the Graphics Lab solution to the safety issue see the Laboratory Network.com feature, A Graphics Design Approach to Lab Safety.)

Well-designed communication tools will be appreciated by individuals who work around hazardous conditions, in laboratories and elsewhere. Companies and universities that make the effort to identify their safety problem areas and hire a creative designer will be meeting their people halfway. None of the many thousands of scientists, engineers and technicians wants to limit their career by getting injured. It is likely that many will readily respond if given the proper means to satisfy their need to work mindfully and safely.

Of course it takes extra money and often political will to address these issues. However, if the alternative is unsafe conditions, paying more fines, or both, it is worth the careful analysis on the part of management to locate problem areas and to seek out specialized designers able to handle it.

For those interested in how industrial design can enhance lab safety, four associations are valuable sources of information. These organizations are: Industrial Designers Society of America (www.idsa.org); the American Institute of Graphic Arts (www.aiga.org); and the Society for Environmental Graphic Design (www.segd.org). Another entity that focuses on promoting the role of design in business is the Corporate Design Foundation (www.cdf.org), a nonprofit educational and research group, sponsored by Potlatch Corporation "founded on the belief that design can make a major contribution both to an individual's quality of life and to a corporation's success."

Bevan D. Suits is director of design and development at Graphics Lab, a division of Perkins & Will Inc.

For more information: Graphics Lab, 1382 Peachtree St. NE, Atlanta, GA 30309. Tel: 800-649-6488. Fax: 404-892-5823. Email: bevan.suits@perkinswill.com.

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