The changing face of environmental testing
Over the last decade, the Environmental Laboratory Business has seen many changes, in no small part due to increasing amounts of environmental legislation and uncertain market conditions. There has been a degree of rationalisation in the market with some smaller laboratories struggling to meet more stringent accreditation requirements and either closing down or being swallowed up by the larger laboratory groups. With the expansion of the EU, the more innovative and customer focused laboratories are now servicing clients from around the globe. This fast changing business landscape has led to a new operational concept being developed, Optimised Process Laboratories.
Many contract environmental testing laboratories have evolved over the years from a variety of industries, not all of which had workflows based on environmental testing.
In particular, many product quality control laboratories from industries such as mining, power supply, water supply, and manufacturing have developed testing facilities, initially to serve their own market, but latterly offering services to an external market in order to bolster revenues and utilise any over-capacity. These laboratories were often not well endowed with “client focus” and were often only able to analyse work for external customers if it fitted exactly with their internal portfolio of tests.
Common Issues with industry laboratories:
- Slow delivery of data
- Poor customer service
- Inflexible systems
- Limited range of testing
The first steps towards taking the contract laboratory towards the client, and the “production line” mentality required to delivering a wide range of services on time, was seen at Alcontrol Laboratories and subsequently Analytico Eurofins in The Netherlands in the early 1990s. There, operational pioneers such as Dr. Ton Grotens used capacity modelling and robotic automation (taken from diverse industries such as car manufacturing and airport logistics), to ensure large volumes of work could pass through the laboratory quickly and accurately.
Ton and his counterparts were often however, having to rewire and retrofit existing systems and testing facilities to gain efficiencies, so in 2008, it has been something of a rare opportunity at WSP Environmental Laboratories to be able to start with a blank canvas and design a new laboratory purely for environmental testing.
Environmental testing laboratories have suffered in the past from being unable to meet client expectations and not helping matters by over promising standards of service that they were not able to consistently meet. Therefore, Optimised Process design was based, not on a product offer but on client requirements, such as defensible results, a competitive price, a rapid turnaround of results and an easy to use service. Since few laboratories have been able to achieve all of these requirements at once, it was decided not to develop a laboratory based on an existing facility or indeed parts from a number of existing facilities, but to look outside the laboratory industry for its design and process features.
The most efficient system
Benefits of Optimised Process Laboratories:
- Fast, Accurate delivery of data
- Enhanced Flexibility
- Wide range of testing
- Total focus on the client
And so Optimised Process was developed utilising techniques from manufacturing, transport, and fast food industries, in order to achieve the most efficient laboratory throughput system without compromising quality. To implement the process it was necessary to analyse and understand the critical flow path for sample receipt, analysis and result delivery, and to identify the rate limiting steps and pinch points in the system.
At the core of a laboratory process is the Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS) which controls the through put of samples from an initial quotation, acceptance of samples, scheduling of Soil Analysis analysis, sample preparation, extraction and analysis, validation, authorisation, delivery of results and invoicing.
In addition the LIMS is designed to control staff training and internal quality control procedures, enabling the laboratory to comply with its accreditation requirements. In order to achieve the best sample flow through the laboratory as much control as possible should be left to the LIMS and any changes once a sample is in the system should be managed by a restricted number of staff. The system will not work to its full potential if there is open access to lab staff.
The over all control of samples in the laboratory should be the responsibility of the sample registration team who determine what is analysed, for whom and when. They alone should have the authority to change the order in which samples are analysed and therefore have total control over the way in which samples flow. Everyone else in the process then relies on the LIMS software to manage workflow.
Conventional laboratory processes dictate that samples are pulled through the laboratory with a rate of flow determined by the available analytical resource. The Optimised Flow Process dictates that samples are pushed through the laboratory at a rate determined by the sample registration team, and ultimately the client, with the analytical process being resourced to cope with the fluctuating workloads. The sample registration function is therefore the driving force of the laboratory and its importance should be reflected in the way that it is staffed and managed. All too often this department is seen as the “Cinderella” department and the first point new recruits enter the lab for training, resulting in an inconsistent service.
When the laboratory process was analysed holistically, it became clear that being able to quickly locate the whereabouts of individual samples was critically important. Experience tells us that this basic function has not been covered particularly well by most large labs.
During their stay in the laboratory process, samples are continually being moved from section to section, with many analysts being involved, so it is vitally important that the whereabouts of a sample is known at all times. Samples should be kept in designated areas while they are still part of the analytical process.
As previously discussed many environmental laboratories have evolved from various industry testing regimes, bringing with them structures and layouts that are not necessarily fit for purpose in a modern, high throughput testing house. The Optimised Process Laboratory takes these procedures apart and questions their suitability.
For example historically, laboratories have been structured to match the various specialisms of the staff involved (e.g. Inorganic, Organic) rather than the overall analysis process. Optimised Process recognises four key elements to lab work:
- Sample reception
- Analyte extraction
- Analyte analysis
- Client communication
In all parts of the flow, sample delivery and inter-team communication are keys to success. Each section acts as a service to the next and uses many of the techniques and procedures developed in other industries, such as bar coding, automated supply and delivery and colour coding. Communication to all staff involved on how the laboratory is performing helps awareness of how important their roles are in the overall process. This is achieved by use of airport style VDU screens. This is allows all members of the laboratory team to see what the facility is achieving in real time. This information is fundamental, as the work at the lab is not finished until the client has received the results.
Laboratories for a global market
Customised reporting is now an important requirement for laboratory services and a consequence of the Optimised Process means that results can be delivered in a variety of languages. This is particularly important in Europe, as more work becomes trans-border, and local regulatory authorities often insist on their data being delivered in the regional language.
For a laboratory to service a global market it needs to understand its clients and the subtle differences required to satisfy their legislation. Much of the legislation within the EU has opened up the laboratory market with drivers such as the Water Framework Directive and the Landfill Directive standardising analytical methods and protocols. Further reinforcing this standardisation is the overarching accreditation to ISO 17025, which ensures clients have confidence in the service and quality of results it receives from the laboratory. Since the majority of environmental testing is based on either the legacy of contamination from previous industrial processes or from present day industries, the contaminants analysed are common to most countries.
Testing in soils
For soils and solid wastes the most common suites of chemical analyses are based around heavy metals such as, arsenic, barium, cadmium, chromium, copper, mercury, lead, nickel and zinc. After this it is usual to analyse anions such as sulphate, chloride, nitrate and phosphate and finally for the carbon based compounds such as poly aromatic hydrocarbons, phenols, petroleum hydrocarbons, volatile and semi volatile hydrocarbons poly chlorinated biphenyls and pesticides.
This varies from the scope of analysis for environmental waste waters which tends to be more extensive including oxygen demand parameters and priority substances.
To accommodate such a wide range of analyses modern laboratories should be equipped with a wide range of instrumental techniques and these would normally include:
- Gas, Liquid and Ion chromatography (GC, LC, IC)
- Inductively coupled plasma (ICP)
- Segmented continuous flow and discrete analysers
Modern environmental laboratories employ an ever increasing amount of automation in order to provide a quality and efficient service to its clients, this being one of the critical requirements of the Optimised Process Laboratory.
However, sitting slightly outside this process, should be the ability for the laboratory to provide basic research facilities to investigate new and innovative technologies in the treatment of contaminated soils, waste and groundwater. This becomes more important as a more sustainable approach to land clean up than traditional landfilling, is demanded by developers and regulatory bodies alike.
Things to ask your laboratory before you submit your environmental samples?
- Quality – Your laboratory of choice should be operating to a recognised accreditation scheme and within a robust quality assurance system such as ISO 17025. For instance in the UK always ask if the laboratory is UKAS accredited and check what methods are accredited on the UKAS website (www.ukas.org), in Germany this is the DAR / DAP. Each country will have its own laboratory accreditation body
- Experience – Finding a laboratory with experienced, well trained staff. A proven track record in handling environmental samples is important
- Proficiency Schemes – Check if the laboratory takes part in the relevant proficiency schemes that set benchmarks for laboratory performance and help to keep consistent quality across all participating laboratories. For example, Aquacheck and CONTEST are recognised water and soil schemes in Europe
- Delivery Timescales – Delivery on time is often critical to your project, but not to the detriment of analytical quality. For the common environmental contaminants, you should not expect to wait more than 10 working days for your results. Most good laboratories can deliver testing in less than 5 working days and even in 24 hours depending on capacity and the nature of the tests
In conclusion a demand for a truly European Environmental Testing facility has resulted in an opportunity to design and develop laboratories without the conventional restraints and pre-conceived design parameters of the past. The Optimised Process laboratory includes many innovative concepts not normally associated with environmental testing units and the concept is likely to evolve as more testing houses look to renew or replace their existing facilities over the next few years.
Published: 10th Dec 2008 in AWE International