Interview: Challenges facing the dental industry, with Mary Borg-Bartlett of Safelink Consulting, Inc.

From time to time, AeraMax Professional taps into the expertise of dental industry professionals to share their viewpoints on issues facing the dental industry. This month, we talk with Mary Borg-Bartlett, the Co-founder and President of SafeLink Consulting Inc.

Since 1991, she has actively participated as a presenter and on-site instructor to audiences of dentists, dental hygienists, dental assistants and dental laboratory technicians throughout the U.S.

Q: What, in your estimation, is the most pressing concern facing dental labs leading up to 2026?

A: There are several: keeping up with technology; hiring and retention of technicians; and dealing with the DSO structuring of dental practices are the primary concerns. All three of these issues are creating the need for dental lab owners to stay abreast of what’s going on in the industry and adapting their business model to ensure they can compete in this type of market. 

From the perspective of regulations, I’d say staying educated on which regulations apply to their dental lab as they change their business model. These regulations range from OSHA, whose concern is employee health and safety to the FDA, whose concern is quality assurance.  Introducing new technology into the dental lab can trigger additional regulatory requirements both from the OSHA and FDA perspectives.

Q: We think installing AeraMax Professional air purifiers can boost the health of dental lab employees. What other ways can dental labs ensure the health of employees in the future

A: As materials and equipment change, lab owners must understand the hazards associated with them. The hazards can range from air quality to use of hazardous materials. The lab owner can improve safety and attempt to ensure the safety of their employees by developing a safety program that is applicable to their work environment.

The first step is to make a commitment by providing adequate resources for those responsible for the development of this program. A Safety Coordinator should be appointed who either has the education in health and safety or has the time to become educated on health and safety. Just appointing someone to that position is not enough. The Safety Coordinator needs the education about how to identify hazards and then make recommendations to the owner for controlling the hazards. Without proper education, this is impossible.

Q; What types of technologies do you see emerging in the dental lab industry?

A: It appears that the use of digital and electronic functions will continue to increase in dentistry.  Digital impressions can eliminate some of the infection control issues that dental labs have to deal with when they receive regular impressions from their dental clients. Most labs are milling and have CAD/CAM departments, but the use of 3D printing appears to be increasing…3D printers are becoming more affordable and the technology is being applied to more and more processes.

This technology seems to be not only decreasing errors but improving infection control issues in the dental lab. The technology, however, brings about the potential of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) among dental workers, since the workstations are more like computer stations. So, providing ergonomic workspaces and furnishings is imperative to preventing MSDs.

Dental lab owners also need to realize that workers’ compensation premiums increase significantly due to work-related MSDs. MSDs are preventable but only if the employer provides ergonomically designed workstations and furnishings…plus trains employees on proper use of these items. Enforcement of the safety rules is always a challenge to business owners but necessary to prevent injuries—MSDs are at the forefront of work-related injuries in the dental lab.

Q; With an increasingly graying population, there’ll be more need for dental appliances in the coming years. How can dental labs gear up for additional workload?

A: Dental labs are already experiencing problems in hiring and retaining experienced denture technicians. Those technicians are also a part of that graying population, so they are usually working toward retirement. In fact, so many dental lab schools have closed over the past ten years that many of our clients have begun their own training program.

Of course, technology may help [to lessen the additional workload], but as of now, I haven’t heard very many positive comments about printed dentures. Surely though, the developers and manufacturers of this equipment will be able to fill this need soon. Since denture technicians are becoming scarce, it looks like it will take technology to meet production needs. 

Q: What are the ramifications of this increased workload on: The dental lab environment? The workers? Management?

A: From my experience in consulting with dental lab owners, production has always been the top priority. However, it can affect worker safety, morale and the quality of the product.  From the safety standpoint, a lack of time to organize work areas and clean work areas results in clutter which can contribute to injuries. Increased workload can also create stress, which is unhealthy in any environment. Burnout can occur, which can result in poor morale and ultimately the loss of employees. It’s always disheartening to a business owner to invest money and time in the training of employees only to see them move on to another job. Younger people today seem to have the balance between their personal life and their work life figured out better than those of us who grew up in a different era. Perhaps that’s why it’s not as common today to see the younger generation taking over the Mom and Dad’s dental laboratory business. They saw how hard the parents worked and don’t see that in their own careers. 

The quality of the product can also suffer when the increased workload cannot be managed properly. Shortcuts may be taken and errors can occur. Internal reworks and external remakes can increase. Both of these cut into the bottom line…not to mention create poor customer relations. Dental clients want consistency, on time delivery and work done right the first time.  Managing increased workload can be detrimental to the dental lab owner who hasn’t planned how to handle this increase.

In most cases it’s best not to go after more business if it hasn’t been planned for and that can include having enough trained technicians, adequate equipment, materials and space to take on the new business. It’s a juggling act—but can be dealt with when proper planning takes place.