3 Steps to Cross-Training Lab Employees While Staying Compliant

Water labs have an important job to do, and without the right people manning the right roles, public health can be compromised. But just like any other industry, your employees will need — and should be encouraged — to take a vacation from time to time. In the same vein, your staff will inevitably get sick on occasion. This is when cross-training becomes key, because without it, your lab may not have the coverage it needs when employees are out.

In addition to making paid time off (PTO) coverage less challenging for lab managers, this training process also helps build a culture of teamwork and continuous learning. Keeping in mind the vast regulations within the water testing industry, these steps can help you effectively cross-train while maintaining compliance.

1. Be Proactive

Instead of waiting for an employee to call out sick before you realize no one can step in during their absence, be proactive by embedding shared job training into your lab's daily activities and documentation. But strike a balance between adequate preparation and cross-training overkill.

Luckily, it's not the case that every employee has to go through the same degree of training for your lab to stay compliant with federal and state regulations and maintain your lab's accreditations. For instance, a quality assurance manager could be ultimately responsible for ensuring your lab's adherence to regulatory requirements, but other employees can still learn about the key quality checks they execute.

When determining your training plan, Lab Manager recommends continuously analyzing your lab's workforce capacity to identify any skills gaps. Be specific with your goals beyond just having a backup plan for employee absences. Which tasks need to be covered? Which specific skills do staff members need to gain in order to complete those tasks?

2. Write Everything Down

Ensure that you have clear, written guidance for each job. The documentation that you keep on file for accreditation purposes can be a baseline for training, but it shouldn't be the only written training guide. Regulatory language is often very detailed, so you should also keep simple checklists handy for when you need to train employees for coverage.

When developing your coverage training plan, revisit your standard operating procedures (SOPs) through the perspective of someone who doesn't typically perform this role. Additionally, make sure that SOPs are updated to include any regulatory changes and highlight any specific steps that must be done by a certified technician.

3. Pair Employees at the Bench

In addition to formal training, employees should spend time learning from their peers at the bench. Operations can't come to a halt for training, but, rather, employees can cross-train on the job by shadowing each other.

Try creating training mentor pairs, such as connecting a newer lab technician with a mentor who is nearing retirement. This can be especially helpful if your lab has a large age imbalance with many older employees who have critical knowledge that you can't afford to lose when they retire. Lab Manager explains that cross-training can provide a solution and safeguard for labs whose older employees might leave.

Benefits of Cross-Training

Coverage training makes for a flexible workforce and helps employees gain professional development and, ultimately, a wider berth of experience. Many employees will embrace the chance to broaden their knowledge base — in general, when employees learn new skills, they feel more invested in their career path.

LinkedIn's 2018 Workplace Learning Report builds on this idea, citing that learning opportunities on the job can improve employee engagement. But time constraints were cited as the number one reason why employees felt like they couldn't learn on the job. Through implementing a cross-training program, you can carve out dedicated time for your team members to develop new, valuable skills.

Plus, coverage training can give employees a clearer view of the ultimate purpose of the lab, which can make them even more invested in their role. This can also be an opportunity for staff members to get to know one another better and develop long-term mentor relationships beyond your cross-training pairs.

This training also allows lab managers to be more flexible with staffing, because the more your employees know, the easier it becomes to move resources to meet demands during busier periods. This process can help ease any anxiety about what could happen if certain employees retire or leave the lab. It will also help you handle PTO requests, maternity leave, and short-term employee absences.

Even though some employees go through specific training for your lab's certification, no employee is irreplaceable. With that being said, your lab should never hold one person entirely responsible for any level of the process for two reasons: If they leave, your lab gets left holding the bag. Or if they get burnt out or become too stressed, their work could suffer and directly impact other areas of your lab.

Plus, training never ends for lab employees anyway, as there's always new technology or an update to regulatory requirements. By integrating cross-training into your water lab, you'll have the best chance of staying ahead of the curve — no matter what comes your way.

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Kelly McSweeney
Science and Technology Writer
Armed with a master's degree in writing and a decade of professional work in scientific publishing, Kelly McSweeney writes about science and technology innovations. She translates complicated topics into stories that capture the curiosity of everyone from casual readers to technical experts. Kelly has degrees from Emerson College and the University of Vermont, and has worked on science, technology, engineering, and mathematics publications at Wiley, In Compliance magazine, and Pearson. Her articles about the latest research are published by ZDNet, Northrop Grumman, and Wiley.