The integrity and reliability of results are pivotal across all scientific fields. Errors made in a lab can result in serious repercussions, including heightened costs, prolonged corrective measures, postponed product launches, safety and quality concerns, and reputational harm. Recognizing and understanding the origin of errors allows lab managers to address them and reduce the likelihood of their recurrence.
The human element
A significant portion of mistakes can be traced back to human error, which can occur due to both intentional and unintentional behaviors. The root causes of these faults can be difficult to pinpoint, potentially involving various contributing factors, including equipment issues, complicated instructions, or lack of knowledge. A lab’s culture can also influence how scientists approach their tasks and communicate with one another, which can play a role in the incidence of error. Understanding these nuances is critical for improving lab operations.
Intentional vs unintentional error
While intentional actions can cause errors, they rarely imply malicious intent. Instead, they often occur during the decision-making process when an individual deviates from the rules due to a perceived benefit while remaining unaware of the potential consequences. These can happen when a task is not completed or conducted—possibly due to time constraints—or when an individual attempts to fix a problem without following established protocols.
There are two main approaches to addressing human error: the person approach and the system approach.
Unintentional errors occur unconsciously, possibly due to lapses in memory, attention failure, or even fatigue. These can arise when an individual lacks the knowledge or expertise needed to complete a task, makes a poor decision in an unfamiliar scenario, omits or unnecessarily repeats a task, or encounters a lab accident, such as spillage.
This type of error occurs when the instruments in use are inaccurate. Some causes of instrumental error include using old, faulty, or out-of-calibration equipment and incorrect usage. Relying on these instruments increases the risk of misleading results and analyses. Fortunately, technological advancements, including the use of more durable and reliable construction materials, improvements in user interfaces and automation to minimize operator-induced error, and the incorporation of digital components that improve accuracy and precision, are working to address instrumental error. However, these advancements can introduce new complexities like increased costs and the need for additional training.
There are two main approaches to addressing human error: the person approach and the system approach. The former focuses on individual acts, treating errors as lapses in judgment or error. This approach attempts to remedy human error with countermeasures to reduce variability in human behavior, such as disciplinary measures, retraining, blaming, and shaming. However, this approach can create a blame culture, discouraging open communication regarding mistakes and holding people back from asking for help. Additionally, expecting humans to be flawless is unrealistic, making reducing errors with this method nearly impossible.
In contrast, the system approach views errors as inevitable. This method uses countermeasures based on the assumption that human behavior cannot be altered and instead tries to change working conditions. This approach fosters a supportive work environment, eliminating blame culture and encouraging an open dialogue around improvement to catch errors before they occur.
Using the systems approach for reducing intentional error, it is best to help make sense of rules and methods. When everyone can understand their logic and importance, they are more likely to be adhered to. For unintentional errors, it is best to consider internal controls such as adjusting layout, color coding, or labeling, as re-training won’t necessarily improve innate human capabilities like memory or attention capacity.
Furthermore, routine and in-depth investigations into failures, coupled with risk assessments, are invaluable in addressing the root cause of a failure. This can help staff avert future errors and maintain a high standard of work. Automating lab activities, where possible, can also reduce the risk of human error. However, it is important to remember that while automation can assist, it cannot replace human expertise, so automation must be used in combination with other error-reduction methods.
When it comes to instrumental error, there are a couple of things that can be done. Your equipment should be high quality, precise, up-to-date, and undergo regular maintenance. Equipment should also be properly calibrated before use to avoid inaccurate results, and lab staff should be appropriately trained on how to use the instrument. Additionally, measurements should be taken in a controlled environment, as changes to external conditions can skew data.
Identifying and understanding errors is a key facet of effective lab management. That’s why lab managers must take a proactive systems approach to avoid error and its costly consequences. By combining effective risk management, staff training, internal controls, a positive and supportive work environment, and regular equipment maintenance, labs can navigate the complexities of research while ensuring accurate and reliable results.