The test of the best

Environment Business asks leading labs how their clients can ensure they get the level of service they need

Consolidation and increased competition - along with demand for high quality results in a shorter time - have transformed the laboratories market in the UK, and it's almost all good news for the businesses that require their services and are facing growing liabilities when accurate testing fails.

There is a higher emphasis on quality, according to Sue Owen, commercial director at AES (Analytical & Environmental Services). Much of this is due to the introduction of regulatory regimes such as CLEA and MCERTS along with pressure from the Environment Agency.

"But the biggest change is that clients are asking a lot more questions, and expecting more," Owen says. Severn Trent Laboratories (STL) has had similar experiences. "Expectations of service levels have increased. Faster turnarounds, cheaper prices, lower detection limits, more quality accreditation and additional support are increasingly important," a spokesperson says.

Turnaround times are vital in today's climate, especially in the development field where soils testing can potentially leave men and equipment standing idle. "Turnaround times have reduced from predominantly ten-day requests to 5-7 day requirements," according to STL.

A client-focused approach

This has led labs to develop a much more client-focused approach. For example, STL has developed online data systems, introduced dedicated couriers, refrigerated vehicles and skilled sampling teams for specific applications. This is familar to AES. "We are talking to clients much more," Owen says. "And instead of just doing analysis and reporting, we now have a whole division that deals with the clients." Owen also says the company's smaller size is a benefit in improved relations. "We hear from clients that when dealing with the huge labs they never talk to same person twice. We prefer to build relationships with our customers."

Sample integrity is vital - if they are not taken, stored and transported correctly the results will not be accurate. According to STL, a lab should be able to provide clients with appropriate containers, chain of custody forms, sample pick-up and temperature controlled vehicles if required. Training on how to take samples may also be available.

With better services have come improvements in the quality of testing and analysis, driven by technological advances, legislation and client demands. A constant need for lower detection limits has meant continual improvements to existing methodologies through better equipment and sampling techniques.

Choose carefully

When choosing a lab there are a number of differentiating factors that should be considered. "Ask questions," Owen says. "Look for contacts with government agencies, and the lab getting involved in national and research projects. A lab with a close relationships with the regulators will be in a position to keep clients informed of upcoming changes in legislation and other requirements." Potential clients should look for performance in proficiency schemes and an explanation of how detection limits are determined. Other key factors are laboratory resources and capacity, customer service levels, turnaround times, the CVs of key technical staff and price.

Most laboratories are UKAS-accredited to IS0 17025. In addition, a new standard is currently being introduced for the analysis of soils (MCERTS). The Environment Agency has designed this standard to ensure consistency of data between laboratories. Other quality standards to look for are Drinking Water Inspectorate, Good Laboratory Practice, and for sampling the ISO9001 accreditation. David Anderson, general manager at Bureau Veritas Weeks Laboratories, says: "A lot of the bigger companies have become centralised super-labs. They provide a courier service, but national sampling coverage is crucial."

Inherent risks

Choosing the wrong lab can have drastic results and inaccurate analysis could lead to compensation claims. Anderson says: "A contractor who was dependant on accurate results could find their contract a long way behind schedule, or it could even be shelved if they miss deadlines. There's an obvious risk to the environment if inaccurate results are published and the financial implications could be significant."

There's a lot at stake. With the Agency on the warpath, businesses need to know they can trust test results, but careful consideration of which company to go with should ensure accuracy, good service and prompt results.



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