Audio Insights with Pat Hlavka, CSP, on Safety in the Laboratory

We sat down with Pat Hlavka, CSP, Safety Coordinator in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at Mayo Clinic, to kick off a new podcast series about safety in the laboratory. In this first episode, Pat discusses her role at Mayo and what a day in the life looks like. At Mayo, Pat focuses on a variety of laboratory safety initiatives, including the safety audit program, developing and maintaining documentation, training, communications, awareness, incident investigation, laboratory safety committees, and emergency management. Listen now.


Have a safety question in mind for Pat? Let us know in the comments below on what you want to hear about in the next episode.



Andy Tofilon: Welcome to our new “Safety in the Laboratory” podcast. We are sitting down with Pat Hlavka who is the Safety Officer for the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at Mayo Clinic. She has been with the department for a number of years and has graciously agreed to sit down with us from time to time to discuss safety in the laboratory and in health care. Can you tell us a little bit about how your journey started in the safety world? Where did you get your start, and how did you get to where you are today?

Pat Hlavka: Well, it is really interesting, Andy, because when I actually started out my career in safety, I started out with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. At that time when I graduated, I could not find a job, which is kind of disappointing for a new college graduate. So, I thought my brother was in safety. He said, "Man, you can get job easy," and I thought, "Cool, let me go there." So I got a graduate degree in safety. So the combination of safety and chemistry was really quite interesting. I ended up with an internship at IBM here in Rochester, Minnesota, and that was my catalyst into getting my employment there. So I was in industry and manufacturing safety for about 13 years. I took a little bit of time off when my son was little to spend some time with him and then got a job back in the industry at a local contract manufacturer. So really, my career before I started at Mayo was really industry. Then, I got my job here at Mayo and what a whole different aspect that was. It was specimens, so being in the lab and in health care, in general. It opened up my eyes into the different types of things that were possible in safety and the whole different realm of employee incidents and exposures that were possible. So I have been doing this for quite a while.

AT: So when you go to a dinner party or are mingling with colleagues and they ask, “So what do you do for a living?” how do you respond to that question?

PH: You know, interestingly enough, I get that quite a bit. Certainly, family members know what I do and folks here, but it is a question that does come up a lot, you know. So rather than to give them a long version, I pretty much just give them a "Cliff's Notes" version. It is incident investigations. It is trying to keep employees safe. I do a lot of training. We do a lot of safety program development and working with safety committees; and usually by that point, folks are so glazed over that they go, "Okay, yeah, let’s go have another drink," so anyway (laughs) yeah, interesting question.

AT: So, most laboratories do not have a dedicated resource for safety. Why is Mayo different, and what are some of the challenges you face in your current role?

PH: Well, you know, that is an interesting topic, too, Andy. So when I came into the position, it was actually a replacement position for somebody who had been doing this job previously. So I was filling that opportunity. So, they had already recognized before I came in, that the position was needed and needed to be maintained. While we have safety folks at Mayo, in general, who do the same thing I do—same education, same certification—what is unique to lab is that we have all kinds of specific things that we do not see in health care, in general, and I think folks who work in a lab recognize that. You know, we are dealing with specimens. We are dealing with extreme blood and body fluid exposure. We have chemical waste issues, PPE things. We also have accrediting bodies and regulatory requirements that the rest of health care does not have to deal with. So, lab is pretty specific because we deal with a lot of things relative to that realm.

AT: I am assuming you do not have a typical day, but what are some of the common themes that you run into on a day-to-day basis?

PH: Well, you know, my days truly are not planned. I can come in with a schedule and anticipated activities, but, you know, depending on one phone call, my day can change in the blink of an eye. It could be a chemical spill. It could be a fire—literally, a fire. We do all kinds of interesting things ad hoc as lots of folks know. So a typical day, aside from some of those crises that come up, includes meetings; the Safety Committee is a big component of what I do, so we try to make sure that our folks are well-informed, that we have procedures and policies in place, and that we communicate, which is a huge component of what I do. Training is there; we do new-hire training for our folks coming in to make sure they have the safety awareness for lab-specific activities. I get phone calls and emails all the time on different topics and questions, so there is a lot of time spent on that. Working through procedures and policies, making sure that they are in place, making sure that they are approved, you know, setting up programs, maintaining web pages—communication is huge and a huge part of my day.

AT: What are you hoping to accomplish with this new podcast, and what are some of the conversations you hope to have?

PH: Well, I think, honestly, a lot of people who are doing safety in labs probably struggle with finding the time to do it. They are probably multitasking as either lab supervisors or bench techs or other roles. So, I think it can be a struggle in getting the resources and finding other people who do the same thing they do. So, my hope for this podcast and the information for this process, is to try to give folks an idea of the resources that are available. Some of the subject matter experts whom we have here at Mayo in different fields (if it is waste management, chemical evaluations, personal protective equipment, safety committees, incident investigation), you know, there are a lot of things that we can take a look at to help talk through some of the things that maybe we are doing here at Mayo or maybe some things for resources and activities to consider in developing in their lab activities.

AT: Thanks, Pat. We are really looking forward to this new series.

PH: Thanks, Andy.

Pat Hlavka (@pathlavka)

Pat Hlavka

Pat Hlavka is a Safety Coordinator in the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology at Mayo Clinic, Rochester, MN. She received a B.S. degree in Chemistry from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and an M.S. degree in Safety from the University of Wisconsin-Stout. She is a Certified Safety Professional (CSP) and a member of the American Society of Safety Engineers. Pat worked as a safety professional in the industrial setting (IBM and Benchmark Electronics) for over 15 years. Since joining the Mayo Clinic in 2008, her responsibilities have focused on laboratory safety including the safety audit program, developing and maintaining documentation, training, communications, awareness, incident investigation, laboratory safety committees, and emergency management.