Laboratory proof of personnel safety’s worth

For the victims and families of a range of different crimes committed in Canada, bringing closure to their ordeals is often directly tied to the reliability of results produced by specialized laboratories — those with the competence to conduct, for example, forensic DNA testing.  Similarly thousands of Canadians are personally affected by laboratories that conduct environmental and drinking water tests, or examine the chemical composition of various substances.

Beyond the exact science being performed by any given laboratory, which demands consistency and adherence to agreed-upon standards for optimal accuracy and reliability of test results, the nature of laboratory work also requires that an equivalent amount of attention be paid to proper laboratory safety and hygiene.

Depending on the type of tests that are being conducted, there is potential for grave danger in a laboratory setting, especially when toxic materials are involved. Establishing appropriate safety measures, in accordance with the requirements prescribed by the applicable Canadian provincial government will affect a laboratory’s performance as well as its trustworthiness.

“There’s a lot of focus put on managers and supervisors to make sure we are driving the right safety culture and on ensuring that people are safe in the lab,” said Paul Fewer, national director of quality & EHS at Maxxam Analytics from his home base in  Bedford, Nova Scotia. Maxxam provides a range of analytical services and solutions to the environmental , petroleum, food science and DNA industries  while also working with various police agencies.

“Maxxam performs full service forensic biology casework analysis for the RCMP. This includes case receipts, the screening of items… DNA analysis, interpretation, reporting and court testimony, if required,” said Fewer, adding that it is a privilege to conduct that degree of work for the RCMP and police agencies.  The staff working in Maxxam labs is required to follow specific guidelines intended to keep them safe when dealing with potentially dangerous materials or substances. Although many labs strive to ensure staff safety, safety programs in and of themselves don’t ensure quality results.  Apart from safety protocols, Canadian laboratories must also be accredited.

“Maxxam goes beyond accreditation with our ongoing Quality Assurance (QA) systems and processes,” said Fewer.  “We recognize the responsibility that comes with this work and we dedicate much of our working day to ensure quality of work and thoroughness and accuracy in analysis and reporting.”  In addition, Maxxam’s QA group and Health and Safety group are managed nationally and report to the CEO rather than being managed locally by the operations groups.

“This approach is something that also goes above and beyond what we’re actually required to do with accreditation,” explains Fewer. While lab safety implementation and strategies for risk mitigation may vary, according to Fewer the baseline factor in all successful, competing laboratories in Canada is third-party accreditation and adherence to standards.

Anna-Marie MacFarlane, laboratory manager with PEI Analytical Laboratories, agrees. “When you adhere to standards, you have a measure… and when you’re in a very small province, a national or international standard (can be applied) to testing and you have that bar set,” said MacFarlane. MacFarlane adds that lab safety is fundamental, and that it needs to be taken seriously at all times because there is always potential for risk.

“One of the most important aspects of laboratory work is that your staff needs to be safe when they’re doing their work,” said MacFarlane.

PEI Analytical Laboratories, is a full service establishment consisting of three main departments that conduct water microbiology, soil, feed and water chemistry testing as well as plant health diagnostics. In July 2012, all three departments–previously housed in separate buildings–were brought into the Charlottetown, PEI location. Given that approximately 50 per cent of the island’s drinking water comes from private wells, citizens of the province are impacted daily by the laboratory’s water microbiology testing efforts.

“A lot of small businesses are directly affected by the results that come out of this lab,” explains MacFarlane. “There are also a lot of tourist accommodations here, so there is a regulatory need for the water in those places to be monitored.” The laboratory’s adherence to internationally recognized standards (ISO/IEC 17025) enables lab staff to ensure that appropriate water testing results are achieved.

“We have the ability to trace back results… everything is documented now, so we have proof when someone asks us,” said MacFarlane, reiterating the benefits of accreditation and standardization.

The use of standards, and the ongoing accreditation of a laboratory to those standards, contributes to a lab’s ability to incorporate safety into the methods and protocols upon which lab personnel rely to perform testing. According to Carol Ottens, a Quality Assurance Officer with the New Brunswick Department of Environment’s Analytical Services, their laboratory has an extremely low incident rate which can be directly attributed to staff making safety a priority.

“Health and safety protocols are integral to all work performed at our laboratory,” said Ottens. “Our health and safety committee, which includes representation from all sections, performs regular safety inspections and works together to ensure that all staff have the safest possible working environment.”

“It would be fair to say that there are more similarities than differences (in lab testing) as a result of standardization,” she said. The New Brunswick Analytical Services laboratory has the competence to conduct testing for microbiological, organic and inorganic parameters and conducts a large number of tests on well water. The protection of the environment and the safety of public and private drinking water supplies is a big priority for the laboratory, according to Ottens.

Regardless of where and what type of scientific testing is being undertaken in Canada, adherence to internationally recognized standards, as demonstrated through accreditation enables a laboratory to demonstrate their worth.  A lab’s value proposition is inherently tied to the safety and quality practices which that laboratory has put in place.

The Standards Council of Canada (SCC) is Canada’s national accreditation body.  Based on internationally recognized criteria, SCC accredits testing and calibration laboratories, organizations that develop standards, as well as those that verify the conformity of products, processes, systems and services to specific standards. To learn more about SCC accreditation and/or to obtain a complete listing of SCC accredited organizations visit www.scc.ca.

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