A recent article published in The New York Times describes every researcher team’s worst nightmare: A freezer full of thawed materials. The university lab described the experience in painful detail that stemmed from a series of unfortunate events leading to the perfect storm. The circumstances that led to this situation are not uncommon—the importance of proper training, equipment monitoring, and clear communication in the lab cannot be understated. As the affected lab begins to rebuild their stocks again, it’s time for other research teams to look to their own processes, identify similar gaps, and make efforts to not experience a similar misfortune.
Training: Strength begins at the base
Personnel safety is of the utmost importance in the lab, but there is also an element of protection needed for the equipment, samples, and other lab fixtures as well. To ensure that everyone and everything is well protected, adequate training with routine follow-ups is necessary. Refresher training to keep all staff aligned in their practices and ensure that new techniques and procedures are adopted sufficiently should be a regular occurrence.
Keeping all staff informed and up to date will reduce the risk of errors that can cost the lab.
In the case of the university freezer mishap, a lack of training may have contributed to janitorial staff mistakenly turning off a breaker powering the freezer. Custodial staff are also part of the lab and require some training when it comes to equipment they handle and areas of the lab they interact with.
Regular freezer monitoring and proper storage protects lab materials
Regular monitoring is always important, but when problems arise, speed is of the essence. For example, in the original case covered in the Times article, their freezer alarm was sounding. A repair technician had been called, but the alarm continued to sound in the interim. The problem came when a custodial staff member shut off the breaker to the freezer, mistakenly thinking that the freezer was alarming because the breaker was off and that he was solving the issue by switching it back on.
This event provides a good example of why it’s unwise to leave a repair longer than absolutely necessary. While waiting a short time for a repair technician, the contents of the freezer were entirely lost when it was mistakenly shut off. In similar circumstances, monitoring freezers and ensuring diligent signage and communication when things have gone awry can protect precious assets and save the heartache of losing materials gathered over many hours of work.
Depending on the time it has taken to generate stocks or other materials kept in the freezer, it may be worth considering dual locations for storage of some items. Storing your valuable materials in more than one freezer reduces the risk of loss, especially if the first freezer has been fluctuating or is otherwise not functioning optimally.
Checking equipment should be part of the weekly routine
Academia or industry, big or small—regular monitoring of any lab must be performed. In many cases, equipment may be located in an area of the lab that is not often used, or perhaps outside of the lab entirely because of existing infrastructure. Many labs find it easiest to have a weekly routine for cleaning and maintenance tasks. This ensures a small portion of the lab is not doing the lion’s share of the work and delegates the responsibility of these essential jobs. Checking freezer temperatures and ensuring seals and pumps are working, temperatures are stable, and problematic frost buildup is not occurring should be part of this weekly check. Taking a few minutes to monitor the status of a freezer holding valuable materials is well worth the time.
Refresher training to keep all staff aligned in their practices and ensure that new techniques and procedures are adopted sufficiently should be a regular occurrence.
Effective, consistent communication is essential
Good communication in the lab goes far beyond making sure the right tasks are done. Holding regular meetings and conversations with staff members prevents miscommunications that can lead to dire consequences. Keeping all staff informed and up to date will reduce the risk of errors that can cost the lab. Loss of materials, inefficiency, experiments needing unnecessary repetition, and duplication of work by different staff members can result from miscommunications. Sometimes signage is not enough—people often fail to read and remember signs as they’re preoccupied with their work. Regular meetings to reinforce standard operating procedures and the importance of regularly checking equipment will go far in curbing problems. Clear communications with all members of the lab, including custodial staff, may prevent future accidents like this in addition to the aforementioned savings.
There are many factors involved in cold storage maintenance
Cold storage is an often overlooked but vital component of the lab. Making sure that the storage where cells, microbes, reagents, stocks, and other valuables are kept is functioning properly is essential for the workings of the lab. Many people from lab managers to students to custodial staff are involved in the use and maintenance of cold storage, making clear communication and equipment maintenance that much more important. The incident in the laboratory that lost 20 years of research products was not the fault of one single factor. Effective management through implementation of the above actions will keep the laboratory running smoothly, increasing productivity and output, and preventing the headache and heartache of lost frozen materials that took a large investment of time and finances to gain.