Laboratories, Field IHs Work Together to Overcome Sampling Challenges

At the 2016 AIHA Fall Conference on Leadership and Management in San Antonio, Texas, AIHA President-elect Cindy Ostrowski, CIH, and Bill Walsh, CIH, business development manager for the Midwest region of SGS Galson Laboratories, discussed how field industrial hygienists and testing 
laboratories can collaborate to produce valid and defensible data. 
Following are some of the highlights from their presentations.
What kind of technical support should field practitioners expect from testing laboratories?
Cindy Ostrowski (CO):
Technical support from laboratories is valuable when preparing to conduct air sampling. You want to verify that you are using the correct sampling methods and media in the field; plus, you might have to consider special handling. There is always something different. For example, you might have to collect the sample with two tubes in series, or desorb the samples in the field. The laboratory staff can answer questions about flow rates, air volumes, and reporting limits to ensure the most reliable sample results. They can assist with the pros and cons of different sampling methods. They will help you decide the best methods that include media choices or analytical techniques to achieve your sampling goals. They can advise about possible interferences or cross-sensitivity that could adversely affect the sample results.
The laboratory can also help you understand the use of validated methods versus unvalidated methods. Most of the tried-and-true sampling and analytical methods have been validated by a standards organization, federal agency, or the laboratory. But occasionally you might be looking for a contaminant that doesn’t have a validated method. In that case, the laboratory may be able to use a modified analytical method to test and analyze for the contaminant of interest. The laboratory can explain method limitations and the data available to support the results.
What support can laboratories offer regarding the transportation of equipment?
Bill Walsh (BW):
If you’re a field hygienist, especially a consultant, the challenge of transporting equipment is a problem you’re all facing—and it’s not new. Back when I was running the field staff at a laboratory, TSA was just getting started. We had a Pelican case of pumps that got jostled at the Detroit airport, which caused one of the pumps to turn on and start humming. They called the bomb squad, so that field work was delayed and I got a very snarky phone call from TSA asking me what I was transporting. The current restrictions on carry-on or checked baggage are definitely a hindrance.
I’ve also been amazed by how much it costs to ship. For example, last year I spent three weeks trying to get a shipment of three dozen badges from the SGS lab in Brazil to an SGS location in Peru. It cost $400 to get those badges out of customs, which was significantly more than the cost of analysis when they got back.
To avoid dealing with multiple vendors and airline restrictions, some global laboratories offer a bundled service. That’s why companies started renting equipment or loaning equipment: if you’re going to Uzbekistan to do sampling, you didn’t have to try to coordinate with three different vendors to get into the country. Instead, you’d just have the one bottleneck. Global companies have been able to establish depots overseas, so you might not necessarily have to get your dosimeters from the States—you might be able to get them in Kuala Lumpur or Madrid.
When renting any piece of equipment, it’s necessary to consider the shipping method and how it might affect the equipment’s calibration. Rental companies should calibrate instruments and equipment before shipping it, and you should receive a certificate of calibration with the equipment. My concerns with shipping: the equipment is calibrated prior to shipping, but did anything happen to the equipment, instrument, sensors, et cetera, while in transit? In some cases, it may be prudent to request the calibration equipment, gases, or other methods be sent with the rentals. That way, I can conduct my own calibration after I receive the equipment and prior to its use in the field to ensure it is functioning correctly.
What about taking and transporting samples internationally?
In my past life, if you were an American lab working for an American multinational, of course the samples would be going back to the States for analysis. Now many countries have laws on the books that say you have to analyze EHS samples in a locally accredited laboratory according to their rules and regulations. These days, just sending samples back to the States doesn’t work. With China, for example, there are a number of people who take two samples: one to send back to the States and one to keep in China to satisfy Chinese regulations. In that case you’d obviously want to be able to cut your sampling costs in half by taking one sample. There’s also a problem with report consistency. What do these numbers mean? Were the same methods used? Were the same limits of detection used? Was the quality control the same in every case? Regarding method consistency, there are things that can be run via high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) or gas chromatography (GC), and other things that can be run on an inductively coupled plasma mass spectrometer (ICP-MS) or just atomic absorption. Do the methods match up to give comparable data? One solution is to have a network of laboratories, locally accredited but held to a global quality standard, so that if you send a sample to the Shanghai lab, you know that you’re going to get a comparable level of quality to work that would be done in the States.
What advice do you have on purchasing versus renting equipment?
You need to talk to your service provider: the equipment or instrument manufacturer, rental company, or, in some cases, your laboratory. Laboratories recognize that newer technologies may be more beneficial in evaluating employee exposures to certain contaminants, so some now offer rental services—not just routine air sampling pumps, but advanced direct-reading instruments. No matter the situation, you need to have good technical support. The technical support should advise you about the best instrumentation to achieve your sampling goals. You should ask: what can the instrument do for me? Can it analyze for the contaminants of interest? What is the instrument’s sensitivity? Are there any interferences? In other words, is the instrument going to provide results that will allow me to make good decisions regarding employee exposures to contaminants? In some situations, it might be better to invest in the instrumentation. For example, I know several individuals who use four-gas direct-reading instruments frequently because they conduct confined space entry on a regular basis. They might decide to purchase their instrument. Other instrumentation can be very expensive, and if you do not use it all the time it would make more sense to rent that piece of equipment.
It’s increasingly difficult to justify an expensive piece of lab equipment that’ll probably have a seven-year useful life, and I think field equipment has an even shorter obsolescence cycle. The next new pump is kind of like the new iPhone: everybody wants it and there are clear advantages to it, but everyone notices that they don’t last quite as long as they used to. Then if you own the equipment, you have to maintain it, calibrate it, and be able to legally defend your calibration, none of which is billable time. If you’re a consultant—as the majority of AIHA members are—you’re doing this stuff on your own dime, so equipment loan or rental programs that various labs and other companies have can be a good solution.
How can laboratories help make sense of data, both past and present?
This is a platform that laboratories are increasingly competing upon: their ability to provide data. It’s been 20 to 25 years since relational databases came on the scene, so laboratories have all this data in their systems. Clients are starting to realize the value of that. They can go back and see past historical trends if, for example, they’re in the situation in which different plants have been bought and sold over the years. They might be able to access that data to see what employees were exposed to. There’s also an opportunity for data mining. For instance, if you’re doing a lot of welding fume exposures and you’re interested in what employees at various plants across your company are exposed to, you should be able to ask your lab to go back, look at their database, and give you some idea of what’s going on. There is a certain “garbage in, garbage out” flavor to it, though: we can give you the laboratory results, but correlating those results to what was going on in the field depends on how well you kept records. Laboratories can also help you access data remotely. If you’re at corporate headquarters and you’ve got safety people taking samples, you want to be able to access the data and have it uploaded into your occupational health database. If you take this route, make sure the database you choose is amenable to having data easily uploaded, and check that the laboratory you’re using is able to upload the data or send you a transfer file without too much manual intervention, which can lead to keystroke errors. Several labs have client portals that allow you to log on to their database or their lab site so you can see all of your reports. Another thing to think about is how you want your data segregated. Do you want it segregated by plant where regional managers can only see data for their region and the corporate manager can see everything? You have to think about how you want your hierarchy to work.
What do you see as the future of sampling and testing laboratories?
When we think of sampling, we are seeing numerous changes coming down the pike. The technology is changing rapidly with an increase in new direct-reading instrumentation. Although much of the technology has been around for years, more research has resulted in several advancements in the technology. For example, we have PIDs, or photo-ionization detectors, and the Fourier transform infrared spectroscopy (FTIR) and chip measurement systems. The advancements in these technologies have increased ease of use. And in some cases, the technology is now smaller in size for more suitable use in the field. The exciting advancement in some of these technologies, such as the FTIR, is the capability to identify contaminants and their concentration, even when you are not sure what is present in the environment. I like to think we are on our way to using tricorders, but that might still be far off into the future.
I don’t think laboratories are going to go away. There’ll be more dependence on real-time monitoring, but I think there will always be a laboratory component. There are always going to be new chemicals that come down the line, along with typical regulation avoidance. If something is regulated, some companies will look for a chemical that’s not regulated to substitute—even if it might be more toxic. Laboratories have begun developing new methods for these new chemicals. I’ve spent a lot of time developing validated methods for pharmaceutical compounds. I’ll use pharmaceuticals as an example of really rigid requirements in that a lot of companies will build their EHS occupational exposure limits into their new drug applications. So the materials that go to the FDA will say, “We don’t think our employees should be exposed to levels above X.” Well, the method that’s going to be used to evaluate those employees’ exposure had better work, or the whole production operation is going to grind to a halt. In that case, it’s not doing a desorption efficiency on a tube or something like that; it’s producing a method that’s every bit as rugged as an OSHA or a NIOSH method so that you can defend it if you have to go to court. It can be difficult to persuade a laboratory to do this because it’s an expensive and time-consuming operation, and it takes away from doing the samples that are coming in the door. For this and all of the other things we’re talking about, a key factor is to develop a close relationship with your laboratory. For example, if you need to get the shipping manager out of bed at 2 a.m. to ship sampling equipment to Oklahoma because there’s been a pipeline break, it’s going to matter quite a bit if you’re a usual customer of that laboratory or if you’re just online trying to figure out who you’re going to use this time.
is principal at CAO Consulting, LLC in Rochester Hills, Mich., and president- elect of the AIHA Board of Directors. She can be reached at (248) 421-4024 or via
is business development manager for the Midwest region of SGS Galson Laboratories and chair of the Analytical Accreditation Board of AIHA-LAP. He can be reached via
is assistant editor of
The Synergist
. She can be reached at (703) 846-0737 or via
Editor’s note: The
August 2016 issue
The Synergist
features a related Q&A on improving collaboration between field industrial hygienists and laboratory professionals. Cindy Ostrowski, CIH, and Laura Parker answered questions about the importance of communication between IHs and laboratory staff.
If you own the equipment, you have to maintain it, calibrate it, and be able to legally defend your calibration, none of which is billable time.