Accreditation: What It Means for Laboratories

What does it mean when a laboratory is accredited, and why should it be important to you?

Whether you're selecting a school, a medical professional or a testing laboratory, one of the key factors to consider is always: "Are they accredited?" That's why it's so important to understand exactly what goes into being accredited.

In terms of laboratories, the industry model for occupational and environmental exposure monitoring accreditation is the American Industrial Hygiene Association (AIHA) Laboratory Quality Assurance Program (LQAP). AIHA has been accrediting laboratories since 1974 and is the largest program of its kind in the world. The primary purpose of this program is to establish and maintain the highest possible standards of performance for laboratories analyzing samples to support the evaluation of occupational and environmental exposures to hazardous agents.

AIHA accreditation actually is administered through four distinct programs for individual laboratory categories: industrial hygiene, environmental lead, environmental microbiology and food. In all accreditation programs, laboratories must comply with International Organization for Standardization (ISO) Standard 17025 as well as AIHA LQAP Policy Modules. The scope of each program is defined by a unique field of testing and methodology.

What are the Criteria?

AIHA's accreditation programs consider multiple aspects of each operation in addition to overall compliance with ISO 17025 and the association's policy modules.

Quantity and quality of work force plays a key role in deciding which laboratories receive accreditation. To qualify, labs must employ a sufficient number of trained technical personnel to complete the workload. This work force also must feature an experienced managerial staff, including a quality assurance coordinator and technical manager.

To be accredited, quality control and quality assurance programs must be in place for all aspects of the laboratory operations. All facilities and equipment are tightly scrutinized to assure adequacy for intended applications. The lab also must be participating in a proficiency analytical testing program.

Naturally, a big part of any lab operation being accredited is simply having the right procedures in place. AIHA accreditation mandates record maintenance and documentation procedures as well as approved laboratory methods and standard operating procedures.

How Does a Lab Get Accredited?

AIHA LQAP accreditation is a four-step process that will typically take up to 1 year to complete after a laboratory submits it application. The steps are summarized as follows:

Administrative Review AIHA staff performs an administrative review of the application. If additional paperwork or forms are needed, the laboratory is rasked to submit the required information.

Technical Review If the application is complete, it then goes to a site assessor for a technical review.

Site Visit If the application is found to be technically acceptable, then the site assessor schedules a site visit. This visit typically requires from 2 to 4 days onsite at the laboratory.

Final Review If this is the first time that the laboratory has been considered for accreditation, the last step in the process sends the application to AIHA's Technical Advisory Panel (TAP) for final review. The TAP is a panel comprised of 12 to 22 AIHA members who can provide expertise to the Analytical Accreditation Board (AAB) on all technical aspects of the AIHA LQAP. TAP members are graduates of accredited institutes of higher education, and hold at least a bachelor's degree in industrial hygiene, chemistry, physics, engineering, biology or another scientific discipline. These panelists also have spent a majority of their time (over a period of at least 3 years) in analytical laboratory activities. Each panelist is appointed by the TAP Appointment Committee and approved by the AAB for a term of 2 years.

After addressing any concerns of the site assessor or TAP, the laboratory will then go to the Analytical Accreditation Board (AAB) for a vote to determine accreditation status. Labs receiving approval and paying all applicable fees are accredited by the AIHA for a 2-year period, after which they must apply for re-accreditation.

Why is Accreditation a Key Consideration?

Since the results of the analysis you receive from a laboratory are used to determine the magnitude or presence of a problem in the workplace environment, it is vital that the lab analyzing the samples be proficient in producing high-quality data on which important health decisions will be based. A laboratory earning AIHA accreditation has demonstrated that it can produce accurate, high-quality results on a consistent basis.

Without accreditation, it is unclear what standards and quality systems are actually employed by the laboratory in question. Accreditation assures an objective, outside safeguard because the lab has to participate in PAT (proficiency analytical testing) quality control programs administered by AIHA. If no AIHA PAT program exists for a field of testing, AIHA requires that accredited laboratories show their proficiency in relevant external programs (round robins) with strict statistical limits.

Some examples of the use of round robins with strict control limits include wet chemistry analyses, gravimetrics, air testing for GCMS (gas chromatography mass spectrometry), HPLC (high-pressure liquid chromatography) and IC (ion chromatography).

By maintaining reliability of data and lab results, accreditation provides the ultimate protection for companies, their workers and their consumers. A definitive line of defense also is established for any situations to be determined in a court of law.

How Many Laboratories are Accredited?

AIHA accreditation signifies a truly elite group of laboratories achieving and maintaining a high level of professional performance. Throughout the entire world, fewer than 250 laboratories qualify to participate in the association's Industrial Hygiene Laboratory Accreditation Program (IHLAP).

An even smaller segment of laboratories have been accredited in multiple program categories. For instance, in addition to industrial hygiene, Galson Laboratories also has long maintained accreditation in the areas of environmental lead and environmental microbiology.

What Other Factors Influence Laboratory Selection?

Experience: Superior quality and dependability typically go hand-in-hand with a laboratory that can demonstrate a long-term history of service and accreditation. A good question for any prospective laboratory is not just, "Are you accredited?" but, "How long have you been accredited?" A select few labs, including Galson Laboratories, have consistently maintained AIHA accreditation practically since its inception three decades ago.

Customer Service: Beyond the quality standards inherent with AIHA accreditation, a successful laboratory should be adept at understanding and answering specific client needs with speed and efficiency. Superior service includes 24-hour availability, fair pricing, rapid turnaround, thorough reporting and friendly technical assistance highlighted by knowledgeable recommendations for application-specific testing and methodology.

Other Accreditations: In addition to AIHA accreditation, leading laboratories often receive certification through multiple quality programs. Examples include the National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program (NELAP) and the Environmental Laboratory Approval Program (ELAP). Although these two authorities are based in California and New York, respectively, they are recognized and respected worldwide.

How Do I Know This Is the Right Lab for My Work?

Potential clients should confirm laboratory accreditation by searching for the name in question on the accrediting body's Web site (http://www.aiha.org or others as appropriate). By visiting the Web site, you can ensure that the scope of work being requested is, in fact, covered by the scope of accreditation granted to the laboratory. For instance, you do not want to send lead samples to a laboratory that is only accredited for microbiological samples.

Whatever the application, accreditation serves as a leading vehicle in accessing the laboratory that best fits virtually any analysis requirement.

Ed Stuber, CIH, a monitoring solutions consultant for Galson Laboratories, has more than 25 years' experience in industrial hygiene monitoring, and serves on the AIHA Analytical Accreditation Board and AIHA Membership Committee. Mary Unangst, director of Operations, senior vice president and partner, Galson Laboratories, is responsible for all analytical data produced by the laboratory.

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