Why Accreditation is Important for Laboratories

June 9, 2016

Lab technician puts sample into vial

Did you know today is World Accreditation Day? If you haven't heard of it, let me bring you up to speed. This is a day set aside annually by the International Accreditation Forum (IAF) and the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) to raise awareness of accreditation and the importance of accreditation in facilitating cooperation and commerce on a national and international level. Accreditation provides the underlying assurance that organizations are adhering to internationally recognized standards. For calibration and testing laboratories, that standard is ISO/IEC 17025.

What does this mean for you?

Laboratory test results impact many areas of our daily lives: assurance of safe drinking water, food safety, health care, environmental monitoring, providing energy, mineral exploration and various production processes. Regulators and others rely on the competence of laboratories to deliver the results on which important decisions are made. Accreditation enhances the public confidence in those test results. Increasingly, regulators and suppliers require laboratory test results to be accredited to the ISO/IEC 17025 standard.

On-site assessment process

Under ISO/IEC 17025, a laboratory's competence is assured via an on-site assessment process and participation in applicable Proficiency Testing programs. The on-site assessment process is a thorough examination of the laboratory’s Management System and Quality System. All the quality system elements addressed in ISO 9001 certification are covered (did you know SRC recently certified to the ISO 9001:2008 standard?). All the technical factors necessary for producing quality data are also examined, including:

  • technical competence of staff
  • validity and appropriateness of test methods
  • suitability, calibration and maintenance of test equipment
  • quality assurance of test and calibration data
  • records and documents

This on-site assessment process assures that the laboratory is capable of producing accurate, traceable and reproducible data. The process is repeated at regular intervals to ensure the laboratory maintains their capabilities. It is a very intensive process conducted by a team of technical experts from an Accreditation Body.

How are Accreditation Bodies Recognized?

Accreditation Bodies themselves are also evaluated using internationally recognized standards (ISO/IEC 17011) and are subjected to a similarly rigorous assessment by organizations, such as ILAC. There are recognized accreditation bodies in over 130 countries. While many countries have a single accreditation body, in Canada, there are two accreditation bodies: Standards Council of Canada (SCC) and the Canadian Association for Laboratory Accreditation (CALA). CALA and SCC work cooperatively to represent Canadian interests on many issues related to international standardization. For example, both organizations have representatives on the ISO committee currently working on updating the 17025 standard.

Accreditation and environmental labs

The drive towards accreditation of Canadian environmental laboratories began in the 1980s with the formation of the Canadian Association for Environmental Analytical Laboratories (CAEAL), the predecessor to CALA. SRC Environmental Analytical Laboratories was an early adopter and one of the first Canadian laboratories to be accredited under the international standard.

While the laboratory always had a strong commitment to quality, the first site assessment process for accreditation was a real eye-opener and revealed many shortcomings. Fortunately, the laboratory and laboratory management embraced the accreditation process, especially the commitment to continual improvement, which is an integral part of the ISO standard.  Our environmental lab now has one of the most extensive scopes of accreditation within a single facility in Canada, with over 100 accredited test methods encompassing more than 500 accredited parameters.

Incorporating quality standards into lab processes

When the extent of accreditation is as large as our lab's, it becomes embodied within all lab processes. Laboratory staff have a strong awareness of all the various accreditation requirements. It becomes natural to implement these quality requirements in all aspects of laboratory work - even in those processes that are not under the accreditation umbrella. Laboratory clients ultimately benefit from this strong commitment to quality.

The unsung laboratory heroes in the accreditation process are the quality assurance (QA) personnel. They devise and implement the systems that make it easier for analysts and others to comply with accreditation requirements. They ensure the necessary records are kept and easily retrievable. Record‑keeping systems have gone from mainly paper records to all manner of electronic record‑keeping and everything in-between. While electronic records make some aspects of quality assurance easier, certain other aspects become more difficult. Quality assurance staff ensure that changes to reference methods are incorporated into lab methods and any improvements are appropriately tested and incorporated. In short, they monitor all aspects of change in the lab. It's a process that's never finished.

On World Accreditation Day, I encourage you to give a shout out to the QA people in your area and thank them for the important work they do. Following accreditation and quality standards is vital to the success of a lab, and ultimately, to the satisfaction of its clients.