Anthrax incident underscores importance of employee safety training

Dozens of CDC workers were at risk of live anthrax exposure thanks to a serious safety violation.

A serious safety lapse could have exposed dozens of CDC workers to live anthrax.

In a stark reminder of the importance of employee safety training, a recent incident at a Centers for Disease Control (CDC) lab may have exposed dozens of workers to live samples of anthrax. In a press release, the CDC says it does not believe anyone was actually exposed, as none of the workers have since exhibited symptoms of anthrax poisoning.

Regardless, the incident’s implications are serious. According to the news release, it occurred when one lab attempted to deactivate live anthrax for use in a lower-security lab. However, the proper sterilization procedures were not followed, which means the anthrax could still have remained viable. The material then went to the other lab, where employees were not wearing the personal protective equipment that would be necessary to protect them from live anthrax.

This was doubtless a disturbing lapse in safety procedures that could have had serious, even fatal, consequences. However, Forbes contributor and leadership expert points out that when such dangerous mistakes are uncovered, it is important that leaders leverage them to create a safer workplace.

Here are some key points:

Don’t play the blame game: Cancialosi says that the CDC was right to move quickly and decisively in the wake of a serious safety incident. However, he argues that the tone of the response was too negative, focusing on who was at fault for the lapse rather than how it was even possible in the first place. He recommends organizations avoid playing “the blame game,” pointing fingers and punishing those deemed responsible. If a dangerous error seems to be the result of a systemic flaw, then it is often counterproductive to lay the fault at the doorstep of specific individuals.

Encourage workers to report concerns: A culture of blame will ensure that employees will not come forward if they notice a safety concern. Instead, try to create an environment in which people are encouraged to report issues. “Consider adopting an approach that puts the focus on accountability and honesty rather than blame, such as the Aviation Safety Action Program, which many U.S. airlines use to encourage individuals to foster an environment where employees are incentivized to report safety issues,” says the leadership expert.

Invest in training: Cancialosi strongly recommends investing in the necessary training to keep your team safe on-the-job. The good news is that you don’t have to upend your budget by sending employees off-site or bringing in an expert. For example, explore Mastery Technologies‘ cost-effective, time-efficient online training courses. Whether you work in a lab, hospital, office or oil field, we have resources to meet your needs, helping you to prevent accidents and save time and money in the long run.

Focus on resolution: Instead of looking for a “fall person,” focus on how your company can improve procedures so that the workplace is safer. Problems can be some of your greatest assets if you use them to improve. While the CDC was investigating the anthrax incident, they also discovered that an inactive sample of avian flu came in contact with a live sample of H5N1 influenza virus and was shipped to another laboratory. Fortunately, no one was exposed. While the worst-case outcome in such a scenario is unsettling, it is more important to implement procedures so that such an event does not happen again, than to determine who was at fault.

Check out all of Mastery’s courses on Laboratory Safety to learn ways you can help keep your lab a safe work environment.

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