Ecology completes first virtual lab assessment

Travel restrictions and a “shelter in place” order don’t negate the need for quality science. At Ecology, one of our most important goals is ensuring the validity of the data that comes from laboratories throughout the state. So, when members of our Laboratory Accreditation Unit (LAU) found themselves unable to get to labs due for audits, they found a way to bring the labs into their homes.

The LAU finished its first virtual assessment of a full-service commercial lab May 13. The two-day process involved a three-member team of specialists using video chat, a virtual laboratory tour, and shared desktops to assess the ability of Analytical Resources Incorporated to perform quality data analysis for the state. Prior to that, the first pilot virtual audit was a small-scope project for the Manchester Laboratory.

“It went really well,” said Daniel Baker, a chemist who led the first virtual audit at a commercial lab, of what may become many virtual assessments. “We were able to get a pretty good look at the laboratory and verify to our satisfaction that they could remain accredited.”

Prior to spearheading the adoption of virtual assessments, Baker took part in about a dozen onsite assessments as part of the LAU. He also served as a chemist at Manchester Environmental Labs for 15 years.

Why accreditation matters

Normally, a lab audit consists of examining a lab’s documents and procedures, then taking a tour in which the audit team examines equipment and talks to scientists as they conduct tests and analyses. This time, the tour was conducted via webcams. Lab personnel shared their desktops with auditors as they walked through the lab demonstrating their capabilities.

There are 400 labs in Washington that receive regular visits from the LAU. Accreditation is renewed every year, with audits taking place every three years. Baker said Washington accreditation is required for any lab that wants to report data to the state of Washington. LAU usually audits at least two labs a month during the summer.

Labs may be asked to take corrective actions or have the accreditation of certain capabilities downgraded, depending upon the findings.

“In the accreditation process, we verify the lab’s capabilities to do the analyses they’re accredited for,” he said. “It means they have the quality assurance procedures in place to verify their data, they understand the methods that are required.”

The next virtual assessment is scheduled to take place in June, followed by another in July.