When we think of labs and how they operate, we’re mostly focused on testing and subsequent results—the technicians’ abilities and conditions inside the facility where sample research and measurements take place. It’s less often that we focus on how the samples arrive at the facility. However, sample transport is an important part of a successful laboratory operation. A healthy and timely sample is vital to accurate analysis.
Managers need to consider packaging, mode of transfer, receiving procedures, and more
Delivery services are a key part of sample transport, and each lab relies on these carriers to help run their operations smoothly.
“Reliability directly contributes to fast turnaround times,” says Megan Evans, quality assurance manager at Polymer Solutions Inc. (Blacksburg, VA).
Polymer Solutions is an independent materials testing lab that focuses on testing polymers, plastics, metals, rubber, and gases to help their clients solve and prevent material challenges. They serve the medical, pharmaceutical, packaging, aerospace, defense, and manufacturing industries.
“If our clients ship us samples and we cannot depend on their delivery, delays to the project could happen,” adds Evans. “For example, the storage conditions could be compromised, which results in the need to send additional samples and, ultimately, in a longer turnaround time because testing cannot commence until new samples are received.”
For Evans and those in a similar position, several key factors come into play when transporting samples: packaging, mode of transfer, receiving procedures, safety, and turnaround time, to name a few.
For the most part, labs are on the receiving end of samples, and packaging is often at the discretion of the client. However, lab officials and technicians tend to guide clients in how to package their samples to protect both the sample and those who might be handling the parcels. Otherwise, it’s possible that the procedure would need to be repeated, increasing labor efforts and cost and resulting in project delays.
“We [once] had very acidic samples from a mine site in Wyoming—they had a pH of 1 or 2—and the person who sent the samples put them in paper bags,” says James Self, lab manager of the Soil, Water, and Plant Testing Laboratory at Colorado State University (CSU). “By the time we got to them, the acidity of the soil had decomposed the bags, and all the samples got cross-contaminated because they were all packed in the same box. So we had to go back and tell them to re-sample and put these samples in plastic or glass.”
David Prince, president of Gibraltar Laboratories (Fairfield, NJ), also believes in guiding the client on how to package the samples. This is especially important because the contract testing lab processes some 300,000 samples per year with clients that work in areas such as pharmaceutical, medical device, tissue, compounding pharmacies, specialty chemical, and nutraceutical.
“Gibraltar receives many different types of samples,” he says. “Each individual sample is treated differently. The sales department or study director will explain how we request to receive samples—ambient, refrigerated, or frozen—and if we request shipment to be sent overnight.”
Like both Self and Prince, as part of the testing protocol, Evans of Polymer Solutions Incorporated will inform clients of any special packaging required for specific samples.
“We work hard to partner with our clients and make sure they are aware of all considerations related to their project, to include special packaging considerations that will ensure accurate results,” Evans says. “For example, when we are providing gas chromatography analysis, we ask our clients to package their samples in Teflon-sealed glass vials to avoid contamination.”
To help clients, some labs even go as far as providing kits for proper packaging.
“For homeowners and farmers and so forth, we have a soil sampling kit where they put the sample into the bottle, which goes into a USPS box that they send to us,” Self of CSU says. “They’re available at nurseries and extension offices, and we can also send those [kits] out.”
Most clients are diligent about following these instructions and will package accordingly. At times, however, the packaging isn’t very sophisticated and lab staff might be surprised at what they’ll find waiting in the mailbox.
“Sometimes people will put a mailing label on a jar and will just throw it in the mail box and we get them that way too,” Self says. “I've actually gotten a sample from somebody who sent us a rock and wrote their address on the rock.”
Mode of transfer
Similar to packaging, the mode of sample transfer is at the discretion of a lab’s clients. Generally, the transfer is one-way—from the client to the lab—and the bits of material are often disposed of by the lab staff.
“Typically, not many items are shipped out of Gibraltar, as our testing is destructive in nature,” says Prince.
To send packages, clients generally utilize any of the common carriers most people employ, as well as private couriers.
“Our clients regularly use methods like FedEx, UPS, USPS, and DHL,” says Evans. “When a project is completed, our clients have the option to have their samples disposed of by us or returned to their facility. The method of return is at the discretion of our clients.”
Self, who has clients in both the private and the public sector, has a similar take on the mode his clients use for transporting samples.
“I would say for our basic samples from the general public—farmers, ranchers, homeowners—packages are usually sent through the post office,” he says. “Environmental consultants, people who have large projects—such as researchers on campus, for example—will usually use an overnight service, UPS or FedEx or sometimes DHL. Not a lot of overnight USPS services [are used] among environmental consultants and government agencies.”
Location is also a determining factor for the carrier a client chooses. There are sites where clients might not have access to UPS or the USPS, for example.
“For samples arriving from overseas, we get a lot of stuff from DHL,” Self says. “They’re usually more accessible to people overseas, and people are used to using them a lot.”
Some clients choose to drop the packages themselves, often driving miles to ensure a sample is properly delivered. “We've had people deliver them personally, driving for hours and hours to get here,” Self adds.
At times, the laboratory staff might lend the client a helping hand.
“Our sales department sometimes, as a courtesy, picks up nearby samples,” Prince says. “Gibraltar also has a company van that can offer pickup of large loads or items.”
The method of receiving samples at the laboratory is also an important aspect of their transfer. In most labs, every sample received is noted and marked for traceability.
“Our clients complete a mandatory sample submission form, which includes information about how their samples need to be stored,” Evans says. “It also includes information about whether the samples should be disposed of or returned after testing is complete. Our internal procedure is a guideline for how to use the information provided by the client to ensure proper identification, storage, and handling.”
Lab officials also often coordinate with clients to ensure they are receiving samples on weekdays when the lab is operational.
“We prefer to have samples sent on a Saturday, Monday, Tuesday, or Wednesday so samples get sent to us and we receive them Monday through Friday,” says Self. “If they send them on a Thursday, there’s a chance that samples can sit in our central receiving area over the weekend. We don’t want that to happen, especially during the summer, because some types of analyses—like pH and alkalinity for water, moisture for soils, and dry matter for plants—have to be done as soon as we get them here, so we want to make sure that we get those as soon as they get to the university.”
Safety is a vital aspect of sample transfer. If labs receive samples that are leaking or compromised, the employees who have handled those samples must be notified to ensure they take proper precautions.
“Our clients are required to submit Safety Data Sheets (SDS) for liquid-, powder-, and drug-containing samples,” Evans says. “There are two main reasons for this. First, so that we are aware of the materials we work with during testing and can take the proper safety precautions. It also gives us the information we need in order to safely handle samples should they become damaged or leak.”
“Safety is the top priority in all we do at Polymer Solutions. Therefore, if our clients do not include SDS with samples, this will impact the time it takes to get samples checked into our system and, ultimately, the testing turnaround time,” she adds. “That being said, it is extremely rare that we request an SDS and do not get a quick response from the client.”
For some samples, tests need to be conducted within a certain time period—anything exceeding that time could render the results invalid. For such reasons, clients need to depend on carriers to make sure the samples are delivered in a timely manner. Otherwise, they need to make other arrangements.
For water samples, there are tests, such as those for alkalinity and nitrates, that have to be conducted within 48 hours to adhere to US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) protocols for turnaround time, explains Self. “Usually in those cases [the client] will physically transport those samples to us if it’s not too far away. I’ve heard of people driving 250 miles to get the samples to us so that we can do the analysis that day.”
In addition to a carrier’s on-schedule delivery, the timely handling of the samples could be vital to the accuracy of the results.
“For soil, once the sample is dried out, it can be analyzed for weeks, months, sometimes even years to get data, and we don’t worry about the things changing too much,” Self says. “If it’s wet, then we have to analyze it pretty quickly for, say, ammonium. The reliability of that data depends on the handling of it, so we have to analyze it as soon as we get it.”
There are times when clients need tests conducted on hazardous substances. Transporting such samples is controlled by federal and state regulations. However, clients and labs rarely deal directly with these regulations and rely instead on carriers, such as UPS or FedEx, to comply with the necessary transport laws. It is up to the carriers’ discretion to decide whether they wish to handle a specific type of hazardous material.
“A group of people wanted to send some samples to us from the Fukushima power plant in Japan,” says Self. “They determined the samples were below dangerous levels of radioactivity, but FedEx declined to send the sample so they had to find somebody else. I think they got DHL to send the samples through, but they had to be specially packaged so that they wouldn't break open [and let radiation] escape from the box.”
Labs can also refuse to receive or send hazardous samples through carriers and on occasion will ask clients to arrange pickup and dropoff. It then becomes the client’s responsibility to comply with regulatory agencies.
Additionally, at times, labs could receive test samples that contain proprietary ingredients whose makeup data the staff doesn’t have full access to.
“We oftentimes don’t have all the information to make decisions regarding transport of our clients’ materials,” says Evans. “They have the most indepth understanding of their material or samples and also the ultimate responsibility to know the laws and requirements for how to transport their materials. Therefore, we rely on our clients to meet requirements, such as those enforced by the EPA and the United States Department of Transportation (DOT).”