If you are like most laboratory directors, the findings of the National Research Council (NRC) Committee on Prudent Practices in the Laboratory should come as no great surprise. “Scientists are spending an enormous amount of their time and effort simply getting instrumentation to the point that it can be used,” the NRC reports. “This wasted time can be used more productively when a well-functioning repair and maintenance system is in place.”1
Hard to argue with that. In fact, no matter what size or type of laboratory you supervise, you could probably add some color of your own to the NRC’s conclusions. I like to call it a “Culture of Superusers.” We all know who they are. These are our colleagues—maybe even ourselves—who have come up through a system that values a hands-on approach to instrumentation, making sure it is ready, calibrated, and maintained. After all, we have all learned through experience that the keys to success in a modern laboratory environment are based on sound research and quality data from the instrumentation used. In our quest to make sure that everything is exactly the way we want it, we often end up doing it ourselves. The question is, at what price?
Beware of the hidden costs of having your scientists do it all. In one study at a major pharmaceutical research lab, it was found that close to a quarter of scientists’ time was spent on instrument maintenance. Instead of doing primary research, highly trained specialists spent hours each week calling in issues, performing basic instrument troubleshooting, tracking service warranties and parts, or simply waiting around for instruments to come back on line. That scenario is hardly unique. In another study by Advanced for Administrators of the Laboratory, “as much as 75% of technician time is spent executing tasks that don’t add value to the process or the sample...”2
Aside from the billions of dollars and thousands of hours being wasted through non-valued-added staff activities, there are other equally significant issues to consider. One obvious risk concerns the validity of research that may be compromised by equipment that is not properly monitored or maintained and only discovered, for example, through an FDA Good Manufacturing Practice (GMP) Audit. Another is improperly installed equipment that may be out of state and/or local code and regulations. Many local codes require that the repair and calibration work on electrical equipment, for example, must be carried out by properly trained, licensed, and qualified personnel—not just the superusers who “think” they know what they are doing. As the NRC is quick to point out, the failure to establish a regular inspection and maintenance program in the lab can lead to more accidents than we care to admit, and “the most common equipment-related hazards in laboratories come from devices powered by electricity for work with compressed gases and devices for high or low pressures and temperatures.”3