One Lab's Top Audit Dings — and How to Avoid Them in Yours
One water testing lab for a large public utility spoke with Currents to share their most common audit dings in an effort to help other labs learn from their mistakes.
This lab performs tests on wastewater and surface water samples, evaluating them for signs of biological and physical contamination like fecal coliform, E. coli, Salmonella, and Legionella pneumophila, as well as other nutrients, physical parameters, and biologicals. The lab also provides services to external partners such as boards of health, local park districts, and drinking water facilities.
"We've never had any issues that would affect our accreditation. We've just had minor issues that don't get addressed well enough," the analytical services manager of the lab said in an interview for Currents. "We do a lot of research and production. Finding the time to really dig into smaller issues can be hard."
So take solace in the fact that your water testing lab is not the only one to fall victim to audit pitfalls. However, dings shouldn't be taken lightly, as some can trigger significant repercussions. Learn from this lab's experiences and be prepared come audit time.
The analytical services manager shared that their documentation isn't always where it should be. Each lab has its own way of keeping records, which means auditors often have the information they need but not in a format they're familiar with. Other times, the lab employees have to do some digging to find the right folder containing the requested information. Sound familiar?
At the analytical services manager's lab, they've reorganized how they keep documentation. She says that audits now take less time because of this forethought and preparation. Specifically, they've changed their forms so that the information auditors will be looking for appears right at the top. They also pull out specific binders before the auditors arrive.
One documentation challenge at the lab involved their incubator temperature log, which is kept in a different department since their incubators need to maintain a very specific temperature — often to the tenth of a degree. To ensure audits go smoothly, they keep this information on their log sheets and also have a preprinted reference on the sheet kept in the other department.
You don't have to face the documentation dilemma alone. The best auditors are understanding and may even offer suggestions to help make future audits go smoother. Additionally, consider any ideas your staff may have regarding ways to streamline documentation processes.
The analytical services manager also cited the traceability of reagents as a common issue in her lab. Not every reagent is always clearly labeled along with their expiration dates. As such, the lab workers always know what they're looking at and using but someone from the outside might not.
She noted that team members don't always label the expiration date on products, so they sometimes get used past their cutoff dates. As a result, they've been dinged when auditors have found expired reagents being used. Additionally, some supplies and equipment have expiration dates that go unnoticed.
Their lab is working to add more processes to ensure dates are checked, expired reagents are properly disposed of, and products are always clearly labeled. If you face similar oversights in your lab, make checking expiration dates a weekly habit, and keep a regular log of how much reagent is in stock and when open bottles will expire.
Perform Internal Audits Regularly to Avoid Dings
Internal audits can often take a low priority, as they take time away from required work and tests for customers, but they are critical. While internal auditing may not be on the official list of what visiting external auditors are looking for, they still often like to see your documentation.
"We do internal data validation on a daily basis, but those internal audits take some time. They are often problematic to get done regularly," the analytical services manager said. "We want to continually improve our lab function, and we know it's an issue."
She acknowledges that while it's not an official ding on the lab's paperwork, auditors always ask about internal audits and aren't happy to hear if they aren't being done regularly. Put your internal audits on the calendar and share reminders at your weekly team meetings. Rotate who is in charge of performing the audit so it doesn't all fall on one person's shoulders.
After all, your internal audits could save you from those pesky dings on the official one. "Both external and internal auditing shows us where we fall short in the process, and we're always looking to improve," she said.
That said, don't let audit dings get you too down, as they can happen in even the most organized of labs. If you cultivate the mindset of always improving your procedures and processes, your lab will be in the best shape possible going into future audits.