Occasionally, researchers encounter situations in which available equipment won’t perform in the way that research demands. In such cases, the researchers must modify their equipment in-house to suit their specifications.
But tinkering with lab equipment can be dangerous. As such, it’s important that every lab has a protocol in place to maximize safety, encourage accountability, and streamline communication with stakeholders when modifying equipment. At minimum, a robust equipment modification process consists of top-down approval, documentation, committee safety reviews, and training.
Ultimately, all decisions to modify lab equipment in any significant capacity should be approved by someone in a leadership role. A top-down approval process ensures accountability, introduces the evaluation needed to determine if a modification poses too great a safety risk, and keeps relevant stakeholders such as EHS officers looped into the process. If lab staff have free reign to modify equipment, risks to safety and product quality increase.
Prior to approving the modification, the lab manager should weigh the experience of whoever will carry it out against the complexity of the modification. Ideally, someone with the most relevant experience will carry out the modification. For instance, if lab staff propose an adjustment to the laser in a spectrophotometer, that adjustment should be carried out by someone with laser expertise.
It's also worth noting that documentation may be important if seeking to publish research. Depending on the extent of the modification, journal editors may insist it be described in detail.
In some cases, the lab manager may feel that the complexity of the modification overshadows anyone’s experience. In these instances, bringing in an outside expert may suffice. Note that they don’t necessarily have to have laboratory experience. For example, if researchers want to upgrade the power supply in a mass spectrometer, hiring a licensed electrician would work.
Documenting the modification—including how the equipment originally operated, how the modification was implemented, and how the equipment works after the modification—plays a key role in safety. First, that documentation will be useful in training others in how to safely use the equipment after it has been modified. Second, it will be valuable to EHS officers when performing lab safety audits.
It’s also worth noting that documentation may be important if seeking to publish research. Depending on the extent of the modification, journal editors may insist it be described in detail.
Post-modification committee safety review
Prior to using newly modified equipment, a committee of staff members with diverse, but relevant, professional backgrounds should examine it to deem it safe for use. Using the earlier example of modifying the laser in a spectrophotometer, a review committee could consist of the organization’s EHS officer, lab manager, optical research scientist, spectroscopist, and electrical engineer. This combination of experts would cover the gamut of all safety-adjacent variables. Only after the committee has unanimously signed off on the modification should the equipment be used.
Modifying an instrument may change the way in which it’s operated or introduce new safety guidelines. If so, ensure that everyone who uses the instrument is aware of the modification and has been trained in how to use it properly. It may be helpful to print a brief step-by-step guide and pinning it to the wall next to the instrument to serve as a quick reference.
When modifying equipment, labs should prioritize safety and always have a robust modification process that ensures accountability and minimizes risk.