Perspective On: An Environmental Lab
For Florida's Advanced Environmental Laboratories, success is achieved through strong management support and smart hiring.
Strong Management Support and Smart Hiring Make for Success
Meeting client needs is the number one goal of Advanced Environmental Laboratories, Inc. (AEL). And with more than a thousand clients across the state of Florida, thats not an easy task. However, thanks to professional staff who are well versed in local regulations, the projects of each client be they a billion-dollar corporation or a small homebuilderare handled with care and expertise.
The teams at AEL take on more than 35,000 projects and perform hundreds of thousands of individual tests each year. Projects include analytical investigations of soil, water, and air at RCRA (Resource Conservation and Recovery Act), CERCLA (Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation, and Liability Act, or Superfund), landfill, UST (Underground Storage Tank), remediation, and O&M (Operations and Maintenance) sites. They also analyze drinking water and wastewater and investigate samples for commercial property transfers.
How do they do it? Bob Dempsey, the laboratory manager of the corporate branch of AEL located in Jacksonville, Florida, says their success is achieved through a combination of proper scheduling, communication, and a trained and dedicated staff.
AELs clients include 75 city, county, and state agencies across Florida; federal agencies that include the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), Navy, Air Force, and Army Corps of Engineers; many of the worlds largest environmental consulting firms; and dozens of commercial firms from small fabrication shops to huge breweries and theme parks. The challenge is to meet the needs of each client, Dempsey explains.
Founded in 1994 and still owned by the same sole proprietor, AEL was the dream child of Charles Ged, who wanted to build one of the best labs in Florida. Today, with five laboratory facilities across the stateJacksonville, Gainesville, Miami, Orlando, and TampaAEL is a National Environmental Laboratory Accreditation Program certified, full-service environmental analytical laboratory. The great bulk of the work performed by AEL is testing and sampling of drinking water and wastewater and monitoring of wells.
AEL also was the very first lab in the nation to be selected and to undergo the Army Corps of Engineers audit/approval/review process to perform work on the Everglades Restoration Program, Dempsey says. And AEL was awarded and holds a standing GSA (General Services Administration) contract with the federal government, allowing it to work for any federal government agency.
The Jacksonville lab, which Dempsey now manages, started with two chemists who worked on UST sites and performed quick-turnaround remediation projects. Now with 35 employees, the lab handles about 12,000 projects each year, including wastewater analysis and investigating Superfund sites. On average, each project requires analysis of five to 10 samples.
The 8,400-square-foot building was custom designed by AEL and specifically engineered to serve as an environmental testing laboratory and as the corporate headquarters. The site encompasses state-of-the-art laboratory design and instrumentation and offers sampling and courier services.
Each AEL facility has a quality assurance officer and a lab manager who oversees department supervisors and technical staff, such as analysts and technicians.
Most of the people that work here are degreed, Dempsey says. However, we do have some people that arent but have years of experience in the environmental field.
In Dempseys branch, there are two department supervisors who each lead a team of about seven. Together, with support staff, he manages 24 employees. Our department consists of organics and inorganics for the most part, he explains. However, some of our labs also have microbiology supervisors.
The supervisors schedule and coordinate all the analytical work in their department from the bench level. In addition to being responsible for making sure each setup is properly prepped, they also perform some of the tests themselves.
Everything we do goes through a pretty extensive review process, and the supervisors are also part of that review process, Dempsey says.
The staff works five days a week. However, theres a skeleton crew that comes in on the weekends, plus additional staff based on clients needs.
Some of our tests are what we call a short hold, meaning when their sample is collected, it has to be analyzed within a matter of hours, so for those clients that have to collect those samples on the weekend, we have a staff in place that will accept them, Dempsey says.
Other samples, such as those that involve microbiology, may be placed in an incubator for a certain number of hours. If that incubation period ends on a weekend, then a staff member must come in to take care of reading and recording the results.
Day-to-day routine, challenges, and management tips
As a lab manager, Dempsey doesn’t perform any lab work himself. Most of his day is taken up with managing his staff, tending to clients, acquiring new sales, and working on business development.
“I have an operations meeting every day with the supervisors and project management staff to communicate client due dates, any upcoming large projects, rush work, and to make sure we have enough coverage to meet our clients’ needs and any other issues they may have,” he says.
“Additionally, I answer many emails each day and communicate with our clients, our current staff, and other AEL laboratories about projects and technical issues,” Dempsey adds. “I [also] serve as project manager for a couple of our larger clients.”
Because the needs of each client vary for each project, Dempsey and his team must set up a custom-tailored schedule per job. For example, if a client requires a quick turnaround time, the lab must arrange to receive the samples and get them processed, analyzed, and reported quickly.
“We utilize a LIMS (Laboratory Information Management System) to log in our samples and track them throughout the laboratory—from logging them in to analyzing them on the instruments to reporting them via e-mail,” he says.
It’s not easy juggling all this work, but Dempsey says he looks forward to the challenge and to coming in to work each morning.
“I truly enjoy the work I do and the people I associate with,” Dempsey says. “The owner of Advanced Environmental Laboratories is a genuine person, easy to work for, and treats me and the rest of his employees extremely fairly, and that makes a difference in terms of enjoying the work you do. All of this, I believe, rubs off on our clients, which is why we have been growing and expanding as a laboratory over the last 15 years.”
Communication is another reason AEL is successful, according to Dempsey. Whether it’s between the employees or with the clients, a clear understanding of what needs to be done allows everyone to utilize their time and efforts effectively. “Singly, it is probably the most important skill set we need to utilize,” Dempsey says.
“Each month, we provide what we call communication lunches—this allows everyone to get together in one group and talk,” he explains.
A good staff is also very important. “We have some very key staff here. I can tell them right now, ‘Hey, I’ve got some samples coming in; we’re going to have to work a little later tonight to get this stuff done,’ and they’ll do it. They work in a team like that,” Dempsey says. “I can’t do all the work myself, so if I don’t have good people working with me [things won’t get done].”
When time and resources allow, Dempsey and AEL’s owner show their gratitude to their staff by organizing functions where everyone can get together in a relaxed atmosphere.
“Last year, the owner bought Jacksonville Jaguar football tickets for employees and their spouses for the last game of the season,” Dempsey says. “He provided transportation to and from the stadium along with a catered tailgate party before the game.”
Instrumentation, maintenance, and inventory
All AEL labs follow EPA-approved methodologies. Some of the instruments they use regularly include gas chromatography-mass spectrometry (GC-MS), gas chromatography-electron capture detector (GC-ECD), gas chromatography-flame ionization detector (GC-FID), gas chromatography- nitrogen phosphorus detector (GC-NPD), inductively coupled plasma mass spectroscopy (ICP-MS), high performance liquid chromatography (HPLC), and cold vapor atomic absorption (CVAA).
“We actually have three pieces of equipment that are under service contracts in our metals laboratory,” Dempsey says. “All of our organics equipment we maintain ourselves.”
Department supervisors take care of inventory. When technical staff notice that an item is running low or missing, they communicate this to their supervisors, who will place an order for the item.
“Each of our department supervisors is responsible for his or her specific inventory and order submittal,” Dempsey says. “A lot of what we do is electronic and the approvals and purchase orders do come through me. [However,] large purchase orders have to go through the owner.”
Because staff members are such an instrumental part of AEL’s success, Dempsey and his team take extra care when hiring. When looking for a new employee, they solicit résumés through a service, ads, or word of mouth and will ask to interview those whose work seems promising.
“I’ll be part of the interview process and so will the department supervisors, and every once in a while we pull in a senior staff person, if it’s a specialty type task that they do,” Dempsey says. “And we collaborate on the interview– ees and make a decision.”
When hired, the new AEL employee undergoes a training period, which varies based on the work he or she will be performing.
“Having a solid, experienced staff working behind you is really key to a successful operation,” Dempsey says.