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Common Errors in Pharmaceutical Quality Control Labs

Identifying errors can help avoid failures that impact research in pharmaceutical labs

Ajay P. Manuel

Ajay P. Manuel, PhD, is a scientific coordinator/writer for Lab Manager. Born in Madurai, India, Ajay completed his secondary education at Cairo American College in Egypt and Khartoum American...

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Errors of any kind can have severe consequences in pharmaceutical labs and could lead to increased expenditure, extended remedial actions, delayed product releases, and reputational damage capped by a negative impact on human health. Key to minimizing errors is understanding how they were able to come about. By tracing an error back to the circumstances that gave rise to it, lab managers can develop more effective training plans that lessen the potential for future errors.

Human error—Deeper implications for QC

Many of the errors commonly encountered in pharmaceutical QC labs originate from deeper inconsistencies in lab workflows. The most common source of errors is QC labs is human error. The root cause behind the corresponding failures is often difficult to pinpoint and could involve various contributing factors including equipment issues, complicated instructions, or lack of knowledge. 

Broadly speaking, failures attributed to human errors can range between unintentional and intentional behavior. Intentional actions are characterized by failures to complete or conduct a task and trying to rectify a situation gone wrong rather than following the proper protocol. Intentional behavior can be categorized into actions that involve: 

  • Failures in conducting or completing a described task, for example, due to lack of time
  • Exceptional circumstances where a failure occurs, and an attempt has been made to rectify the situation as opposed to following relevant protocols. 

Unintentional behavior encompasses actions that can be due to: 

  • Lack of knowledge or skill on how to perform a given task 
  • Poor decision-making in non-routine situations 
  • Lapse in memory leading to missing or unnecessary repetition of steps
  • Accidents in the work environment while performing a task, for example, spillage. 

Concerning HPLC instrumentation specifically, errors surrounding poor reproducibility, low sensitivity, and baseline drift can be caused by variations in sample preparation, column temperatures, flow rates, and a poorly maintained system.

The use of older and faulty instrumentation is among the primary reasons for extensive lab downtime. Continued use of said systems further increases the possibility of misleading results and analyses that can jeopardize product quality and force expensive recalls. Regular maintenance and investing in modern lab instrumentation that meets the needs of the QC lab is advisable to ensure all components are in good working order and the lab can operate efficiently and consistently. 

One of the ways QC labs can reduce the volume and severity of errors is by providing adequate training to lab personnel. This was a particular focus during the COVID-19 pandemic, which introduced various additional factors that contribute to increased human error in labs. Personal stress can often lead to distraction, resulting in personnel rushing through tasks and overlooking important details. Work schedule changes, staffing challenges, and a lack of appropriate experts available at hand further exacerbates these issues while increasing the potential for errors. Although the automation of workflows and methods was helpful, it cannot be applied as a wholesale solution to all scenarios. 

Minimizing errors in QC labs 

Regular and thorough lab investigations to identify the root causes of failures can go a long way toward mitigating errors and the resulting potential impact on compliance. Though an arduous process for labs, these investigations can also serve as a proactive measure to avoid failures in the future. To avoid the resultant costly consequences of analytical errors, it is important to train staff appropriately, ensure regular maintenance of lab equipment, establish rigorous risk assessment procedures, and ensure protocols and methods are clear and well-written. 

At a higher level, staff well-being is also important, and promoting staff work-life balance can help establish a positive mindset while avoiding a culture of blame. Well-defined key performance indicators related to error reduction together with comprehensive records of lab methods ensure that labs smoothly pass in-house and external inspections while helping improve long-term QC practices. Enabling an open network for transparency and communication and keeping staff updated about procedural changes can also help in avoiding costly errors within the lab. Altogether, a healthy balance between the innovation of quality products and compliance with regulatory standards can be established. 

Moving forward: the modern QC lab

Pharmaceutical QC labs play a crucial role in the analyses of drugs and therapeutics for patient health and safety, ensuring the consistency and reliability of these products through extensive testing and compliance with regulatory standards.

An ideal HPLC system would provide for proactive error detection helping labs reduce human error and enhance product quality and delivery as well as system uptime while minimizing service intervention. As modern labs shift to an extensive digital platform of asset management, such a system should enable users to track system operations while enabling users to track system and lab operations, subsequently boosting analytical capabilities and operational efficiency. 

Identifying the root causes of errors can go a long way when it comes to compliance impact. A proactive approach toward avoiding these errors can help mitigate costly consequences and can be accomplished by establishing effective risk assessment procedures, appropriate training of staff, proper documentation of procedures, and regular maintenance of lab equipment. On a higher level, a collaborative team environment with efficient communication channels and transparency alongside a supportive work-life balance can set the stage for defined key performance indicators in the lab and reduce errors.

Ajay P. Manuel

Ajay P. Manuel, PhD, is a scientific coordinator/writer for Lab Manager. Born in Madurai, India, Ajay completed his secondary education at Cairo American College in Egypt and Khartoum American School in Sudan. Pursuing higher studies abroad, Ajay completed his bachelor’s degree in Honors Astrophysics, a master’s degree in Physics, and a PhD in Electrical and Computer Engineering, all at the University of Alberta (U of A). During his time at the U of A, Ajay engaged his interests in interdisciplinary research by working as a researcher in various fields including astrophysics, biophysics, plasma physics, robotics, and plasmonics. Aside from his academic endeavors, Ajay is an avid writer and has self-published an autobiography detailing his tumultuous years at high school in Sudan in Our Last Summer: A Personal Memoir and a fictional romance in A Little Bit of Everything. An active science writer for Lab Manager by day as well as an aspiring artist and writer by night, Ajay shares his daily experiences and his love for science writing on his personal blogs at The Pensive Reverie and The Procrastinating Scientist. Ajay can be reached at:


lab managementlab qualityPharmapharmaceutical labsQuality Controlresearch errors
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