For life science research organizations, hazardous waste management is, well, a hazard. Because hazardous waste disposal involves safety, regulatory, and financial risks, many labs assume it is cheaper and safer to do the work internally, handled personally by scientists or support staff. But this could be a mistake. Contrary to popular perception, outsourcing the work can be the less-risky option.
In many research organizations, the scientists themselves must assume some of the hazmat disposal process, including activities like bringing the hazardous waste to a designated collection or consolidation area. These time-consuming tasks waste valuable time that could be better spent on research. Asking a scientist to personally oversee hazmat disposal is like having a physician take out the trash instead of seeing more patients. And it can ultimately result in a loss to science and the public good.
For nonscientific support staff, in-house management can even be dangerous. A lack of knowledge about hazards and proper handling procedures can transform a routine storage task into a quickly spreading fire, a treacherous spill, or a toxic chemical reaction that requires evacuation of the facility. Some hazards can’t even be seen, as when an employee wears inadequate personal protective equipment and is exposed to unsafe levels of radiation without being aware of the danger.
Since hazmat disposal is a heavily regulated activity, noncompliance can result in large fines—and the cost accelerates if the noncompliant practices are repeated across an organization’s network of laboratories. Noncompliance could mean simply using the wrong codes when shipping; filling out manifest documentation incorrectly; marking drums improperly; failing to perform the necessary inspections; failing to adhere to waste disposal time frames; signing of manifests by untrained personnel; and storing waste improperly.
However, outsourcing the problem to a vendor creates another risk: How do you know the vendor can manage your laboratory’s hazardous waste safely and in compliance with regulations?
To mitigate the risk of outsourcing such a sensitive process, we offer the following suggestions for making sure your hazardous materials disposal process is handled by professionals well-trained and accountable for responsible performance:
1. Who will be ultimately responsible for safety and compliance risks? With the right partner, it is possible to funnel waste management tasks through a single point of contact with a trusted vendor—offloading the responsibility of the work and simplifying management. A qualified vendor will assume liability for safety and compliance to the extent allowable by law.
2. Does the vendor offer dedicated and comprehensive expertise in life sciences R&D operations? From regulatory issues to the ins and outs of actual lab operations, biotechnology is a very unique industry requiring highly specialized knowledge even for administrative and support tasks. While many third-party vendors have some experience in hazardous waste management (often only disposal), very few can honestly claim to be experts in managing laboratory administration or even the entire life cycle of hazardous waste.
Fewer still have experience in laboratory administration or R&D operational support. Look for a partner that has soup-to-nuts experience, from managing waste disposal to securing proper equipment and instruments to logistics and supply chain management. Even if you are only interested in the hazardous waste aspect, a vendor with total management capabilities will have a deep understanding of the laboratory environment. And, you might later decide to outsource laboratory management entirely and free your research staff to focus strictly on the science.
3. Who are the vendor’s clients? When it comes to scientific research, unknowns are part of the job. That’s why we have the scientific method. But when you’re looking to outsource hazardous waste management, you don’t have time to test every possible partner. Ask the prospective vendor for a detailed list of representative clients as well as case studies of their former work. The vendor should offer experience working with major national life science research and manufacturing organizations, and air-tight references.
4. How much will it cost? An experienced service provider should be able to deliver sustained annual cost savings of between 10 and 20 percent. You might think that outsourcing hazardous waste management would cost more money than managing it with in-house staff because you are paying for convenience. However, a good partner will actually help you save money by improving operational efficiency in the lab and allowing skilled workers to focus on their main responsibilities. When assessing a potential vendor, feel free to ask for specific examples of how the company has helped its clients reduce waste disposal costs and by how much.
Innovation drives success, which is why organizations should be spending as little time as possible on hazardous waste management and other non-core activities. Outsourcing the full breadth of hazardous waste management services to a trusted partner can reduce risk, decrease costs, and improve operational efficiencies. The key is to find the right partner, someone who can deliver the most value by managing waste management operations across all locations while adhering to the highest industry standards.