In terms of the steps required to successfully complete the review, remediation or assessment of a site the laboratory testing sits at a fairly unique position. There are a huge number of factors that affect the choices of what needs to be tested, along with in many cases ‘how’, ‘when’, and ‘how often’, and then those results are used to affect an equally wide range of decisions and processes further down the line and can have significant practical and financial repercussions.

It is then of some importance that the testing undertaken is fit for the purposes it is intended and can be used confidently to underpin those decisions. Or to put it a different way, what can be done to ensure you are getting the most out of the laboratory to help you with your project?

From the perspective of the lab, there is no point which would be considered too early to be contacted by a client to discuss an upcoming (or potentially upcoming) program of works. Each site presents something new, be it a novel compound of interest or a familiar parameter to a new level of concern, or a new logistical challenge. The more information that can be shared at the planning stage the more this will allow the lab to give the most accurate indication of what can be done, and set in motion any steps that need to be taken to deliver a smooth service.

This approach need not cover every situation. For example, consider a granular waste that has been classified and disposal route preidentified so all you need is a WAC test – this type of ‘transactional’ submission for industry standardised testing to accepted criteria on a well-defined material need little input, but what if you have 10,000 samples for submission…?

So why do laboratories want to get involved this early, and what advantages does it bring? First and foremost is to ensure that we have the ability to appropriately deliver what you need. New tests methods are not a quick thing and neither do they come cheaply – the development of a new test method, including validation, can cost tens of thousands of pounds, and should new equipment be required the additional zeros appear very quickly! This isn’t an indication that something can’t be done, but the more time allowed to plan for it the easier it becomes. And it’s similar with the resourcing required to deliver on work in an increasingly busy marketplace. All labs want to maintain a high level of service delivery, both in terms of the timely generation of data but also the delivery of an excellent customer experience, and knowing what you need and when you need it before it is needed gives us a huge advantage in doing so.

Data handling

One major consideration in the modern world revolves around data and specifically the way it is moved from one place to the other. The use of standardised digital data formats is increasing but there is still a wide variety of individualism and specificity in how different end users like to move things around, and as the originator of the analytical data it is key that we are able to start the process on the right foot, and that lead time prior to starting work is key in setting this up – delivering solutions like this on the fly is an experience not enjoyed by any party, even if sometimes a necessity.

“each site presents something new, be it a novel compound of interest or a familiar parameter to a new level of concern, or a new logistical challenge”

Ultimately, like any business, laboratories are looking for collaborative partners. Even in my memory, many aspects of testing requirements were historically simpler and more prescriptive which led to the more transactional type of relationship with clients as mentioned above, but with new awareness, new legislation, new problems and new solutions, a significant increase in projects that we see are falling out of this category and bringing new hurdles to overcome.

Moving on from the why for a while, we can look at what sort of information we like to know (and a little bit of why as well…). At its simplest we have the specification of testing and sample numbers which gives the basic understanding of what you want to do and what we might need to do to deliver it, but it is often really useful to understand why you are doing it and what the end use of the data would be. In many cases we have multiple ways of performing ostensibly similar things, either to different detection limits or using methods based on certain specific standards and we’d like to ensure we are offering the best fit solution. Some instances arise where there is pre-existing data from a site – either from a previous laboratory or another part of a longer term investigation – and by understanding what was done before, we can try and ensure consistency of data in the options we provide going forward.

Using TPH as a simple example, there exists a huge variety of options of how this test can be performed, and an even larger variety of ways in which the data can be presented. Each option is perfectly valid in and of itself but the data can be used to serve different purposes and a lot of confusion still exists as to what is the best way to do things and what data is needed. A simple conversation can in most cases identify which option works best for your technical needs, and also provides the most cost-effective solution – do we need the Rolls Royce when a Ford Fiesta will suffice? >

“in many cases we have multiple ways of performing ostensibly similar things, either to different detection limits or using methods based on certain specific standards”

Something that can come out of discussions surrounding the project is an awareness of other elements/requirements that as a supplier, your lab may be able to help facilitate. Most labs are multi-faceted so can often provide services covering different elements of a project – from geo-environmental testing, geotechnical testing, occupation hygiene and air monitoring, sampling and site services. Some years ago, a long standing client for whom we had been testing soil for many years asked if I was aware of someone who could do some water testing for them, unaware of the scope of the functions the lab could provide! An extreme example I’ll admit, but the ability to coordinate various aspects of the service on a project could help streamline both the supply chain and the delivery of the project.

I’m not sure if I speak entirely for the lab community on this one, but I will always welcome a challenge and a somewhat off the wall request. Some of our most successful and innovative projects have come from speculative enquiries from a client with a goal and no clear path of how to get there. “We’re looking for a way to…” or “we have a problem with…” can be the starting points to a process where the lab can really add value and potentially lead to some exciting new developments.

Innovative techniques

I recall back in 2016 using a then new to market technique based on BS15051-2 to look specifically at the release of respirable asbestos fibres from soil as a means to aid in the risk assessment process.

At that time, we had a clear indication of how that method could be used and began various conversations with a range of clients as to its potential benefits. At this point, we began to encounter the questions above which then for us quickly turned into “we have this really flexible tool, how can we make best use of it to help deliver solutions for these types of problems” and from there the range of applications increased significantly. What started life as an extension of the existing accepted asbestos/free fibre in soil assessment process, through a series of collaborative projects with multiple clients, grew to initially unforeseen heights. We pursued studies based on new remediation techniques for asbestos contaminated soils, helping to design application protocols based on optimised conditions. We have partnered on nationwide projects to try and model behaviour patterns on both soil and asbestos fibre types. We have supported clients in various sectors on studies and real time assessments, but all are only possible due to the original discussions with clients and the developments that we made from understanding what our clients needed and moulding the science to give a suitable output.

Location

Something that is often overlooked (until the last minute) is the site location, and what impact this can have on the potential delivery of the project. From the lab perspective we have a few reasons for our interest in the site location, some more obvious than others…

The most obvious is the logistical impact – how can we get the samples from site to the lab in a way to best suit the project delivery. Different labs will varying options in terms of what they can do to support the delivery and collection of samples, utilising their own vehicles and drivers, third party courier services as well as hub/depot/ drop off sites that can be used for samples to be dropped off. One caveat I always put in is that we are a lab that can help facilitate logistics, we are not a logistics company who does a bit of testing on the side. Whilst not intending to downplay the services on offer, it is to highlight that we can not be everywhere at any time, and that resources are limited so as with the testing itself, anything we can do upfront to help plan for the requirements of your project will significantly help in ensuring it goes off as needed. There may have to be compromise – from my own experience I would say the most common request is “can you collect between 4pm and 5pm please”, which if we agreed to all such requests would require some form of time travel in order for us to facilitate. What we would try to do is work with clients to understand the sampling requirements and identify the most fit for purpose option (not necessarily the most obvious).

“some of our most successful and innovative projects have come from enquiries from a client with a goal and no clear path of how to get there”

Into this has to be factored any restrictions in terms of sample deviations. If your lab is in southern England and your site is in the Outer Hebrides then microbiological analysis and BOD testing may not be feasible to do without incurring deviations based on holding times. We do have to unfortunately work within the confines of normal space/ time so again compromises may need to be reached, but by understanding the challenges faced the lab can help put forward solutions to try and minimise impact, and in some instances it can be the catalyst to drive forward new innovation and development to find more permanent solutions to problems.

One other location based element we can consider is the existing knowledge/information about the area or site. Reference information exists in various areas relating to naturally occurring background levels of chemical contamination, as well as prevailing geological conditions which can help set the labs expectations of what they can expect to find – and therefore expedite the delivery of results. The “where” then often leads into the prior or historical use, and this can have a massive impact upon the potential testing that the lab would offer and also speed of delivery once samples are submitted. If we know the site you’re looking at was a former chemical factory, a gas works, or tannery (as examples) then this gives us a better opportunity to provide a fit for purpose quote, process the samples efficiently and also control the H&S implications of handling the samples.

Before any hackles are raised of labs overstepping their bounds, this is not an intention to branch out and offer consultative services. What we are looking to do is allow you to take advantage of the experience that the lab has to help you tailor the service you need to better fit the requirements of the project.

As we get more embedded into this type of collaborative project set up process, we do as a side effect also get looked to help define what people should be doing;
“Can you tell me what to test for…
” “What do these results mean…” Or
“What’s your standard suite for…”

The answers to these questions sit on the other side of the line on many occasions, and as a standalone entity (some labs will form part of a larger group with consultancy services) the lab cannot dictate the course of action. What we can do however is to help support our clients in the delivery of their projects by using the accumulation of experience and expertise in the areas we do specialise in ensure the work we complete is the best fit for them and the project.

Each project that comes along will be different in some ways. Some only slightly, and others in every aspect but not all will require extensive set up and development. What I would encourage all to is err on the side of caution and if in any doubt pick up the phone and speak to your lab. I would feel confident in saying that any conversations at this early stage can only ever add value to the process, or at the very least provide confirmation and surety as to an existing process.

“Oh god, they’re ringing to tell me more useful things about this project…”

Not a sentence you’re ever likely to hear from a lab. Ever.