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Perspective On: An Environmental Lab

Lab manager Larry Decker's TestAmerica environmental lab in Connecticut is where he and his staff analyze thousands of soil, wastewater, and monitoring well samples each month. One key to the lab's success is a management team that works on training every individual to be reactive and ready to go if the person is needed in a different department.

Lab Director, Larry Decker, Juggles a Wide Assortment of Tasks to Keep His Lab Running Smoothly

In order to protect the natural environment, namely air, water and land, the federal government and each individual state have set environmental regulations. If a plot of land is to be developed or a site is being monitored by state or federal agencies, contracted firms will take samples of the soil and water to find out what kinds of hazardous substances, if any, are on the property.

Those samples are then sent to environmental laboratories for analyses. TestAmerica Laboratories, Inc. is one such environmental testing firm.

“We have clients that sample monitoring wells or do all sorts of drilling into the soil, then send us samples to determine the level of contamination,” says Larry Decker, the lab director of the Connecticut facility.

The clients may install monitoring wells that need to be watched for years. Decker and his team analyze and report any pertinent analytical information related to samples from the wells. These results are needed to remediate the property.

For instance, if the land is a brownfield— an abandoned property previously used for commercial or industrial purposes and potentially having levels of contamination— and the owners want to sell it, they need to make sure it’s free of any environmental contamination before it’s placed on the market.

TestAmerica will analyze components of the land, water and air so its clients can decide what should be done with the property.

“All of our results are not just numbers,” Decker says. “We have to have supporting documentation and quality control, what we call a ‘data package,’ which is a lot of the background information on the calibration and the methodology that is defensible in court.”

By far the largest environmental lab company in the nation, TestAmerica has 37 environmental testing labs and 29 service centers. The company specializes in air, aquatic toxicity, explosives, specialty organics, dioxins, drinking water, sediments and tissues, emerging contaminants, radiochemistry, and mixed-waste testing.

“[In the Connecticut location] we analyze soils, wastewater [and] monitoring wells,” Decker says. “However, if it’s a test that’s not performed on location, the client can send sample to the Connecticut lab and the staff [will] move it to another TestAmerica location with that specialty.”

“This type [of] project management keeps the analytical data seamless for the client—one-stop shopping.”

Decker’s lab, one of the smaller ones in TestAmerica’s network, processes thousands of samples each month and serves eight states—Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, Vermont, New York, New Jersey, Rhode Island and Utah. Clients can use either overnight shipping or the lab’s courier service to get their samples to his team.

“We have vans that go out to about a two-hour radius picking up samples,” Decker says. “If they are beyond that distance, we have sister laboratories in Edison, New Jersey, and Westfield, Massachusetts, that will assist Connecticut with logistics.

“The courier service may sound trivial, but when your clients are out in the field sampling all day long, at the end of the day they want to get as much time in the field as they can without worrying about securely packing the samples and finding a convenient overnight shipping facility,” Decker says.

Additionally, some samples must be collected in glass bottles and stored in a cooler with ice, which makes breakage very likely during shipping if samples have not been packed properly.

“So [our clients] love the fact that they have a courier who takes their samples on a van, out of their hands so they don’t have to worry about it,” Decker explains. “I have been told by some very happy clients that the couriers are a welcome sight around quitting time.”

To strengthen its local presence even more, TestAmerica has strategically placed service centers in Albany, New York, and Boston, Massachusetts. These service centers are staffed with seasoned experts in the environmental field, capable of assisting clients with project management.

Lab structure

With an area of 16,000 square feet and about 40 staff members consisting of scientists and support personnel, the Connecticut facility is equipped to provide services such as RCRA waste characterization and groundwater monitoring, among others.

The laboratory consists of seven departments: sample control, classical chemistry department, extractions laboratory, gas chromatography (PCB and pesticides/ CT-ETPH and DRO), semi-volatile department, volatiles department and metals department.

“When samples come into the laboratory, they have to be entered into our Laboratory Information Management System (LIMS),” Decker says. Sample control takes care of the staging, assigning a job number to each project and allocating a unique identification to each sample. Once the sample is in the LIMS system, all groups that might need to start work on the project can retrieve the necessary information.

“The tests required are usually worked out ahead of time with the client and project managers, but any given sample may have an extended list of requirements,” Decker explains.

For example, a sample may need to be analyzed for a full list of metals and mercury. It may also need to be run for PCBs, pesticides, semivolatile and volatile compounds, and an extended suite of classical chemistry analyses.

Once the chemists from various departments review what is logged into the LIMS system, each department assigned to work on a sample knows how to prepare it, the methodologies required and the instrumentation needed for analysis.

“Each project is unique, and special instructions are very valuable to the analysts,” Decker says. “We have managers responsible for each department. I’ve got about eight direct reports and a couple of indirect ones such as IT and Health and Safety.”

The expertise of the staff, most of whom have bachelor’s degrees in the sciences, ranges from chemistry to biology to environmental sciences.

“We have a wide range of employees here—[people with] anywhere from high school diplomas to master’s degrees,” Decker says. “We [also] employ students currently in college and others taking courses for science degrees. Believe it or not, we have people here with a major in philosophy, but it all depends on where in the lab they are and their skill sets.”

Although the educational background of each staff member is very specialized, Decker’s management team works on training every individual to be reactive and ready to go if the person is needed in a different department. This helps ensure that the lab has enough people to handle the overall flow if one department needs additional staffing.

Inventory, maintenance and hiring

Like many other types of labs, Decker’s lab consists of several inventory categories such as chemical supplies and reagents and items like glass bottles, beakers and coolers.

Clients collecting samples in the field receive a cooler on-site stocked with empty bottles. “That’s an inventory we have to hold,” Decker says. “You [also] have all your consumables, standards and chemicals that you have to have in a laboratory, which are very expensive.”

There are also consignment inventories— items and equipment that Decker’s staff keeps on-site but that are owned by the supplying company.

To maintain the inventory, most managers place their orders through the general system, which goes into the corporate ordering form. Decker checks every order, but the managers have to keep an eye on their supplies and needs in each department.

“I have to check every order,” he says. “In this day and age you have to make sure you keep a lean inventory and you’re ready to react if there is an increase in your backlog.”

Instruments such as ICP/MS, ICP, mercury analyzers, GC/MS, ion chromatography, pH meters and autotitrators, among others, are regularly used in Decker’s lab. For maintenance, he and his analysts try to resolve any issues themselves but rely heavily on the seasoned employees, who have been around for many years and possess high skill levels. If the issue is something the staff can’t take care of in-house, they depend on their maintenance contracts.

Hiring in Decker’s lab is taken care of by human resources, Decker and department managers. When management recognizes that additional staff is needed, Decker will notify corporate human resources about posting the position on the company Web site. Candidates are interviewed by all the aforementioned before any decision is made.

“I’d like to meet everybody who comes in for an interview,” Decker says. “I may not do the actual interviews, but I will go at least meet them and sometimes sit with them for a while and get a feel for [the candidates].”

At the moment, however, due to the state of the economy, Decker is seeing more stability in terms of turnover.

“In the future, when the economy rebounds and people are finding more jobs, I think turnover will be higher, obviously,” he says. “It’s part of our job to try and do what we can to keep the career path on track so [our staff] enjoys their work.”

Decker admits that his biggest challenge is ensuring that he and his staff are giving each client a competitive edge in a tough economic marketplace.

“[Our clients] are bidding on projects all the time, and years ago there’d be maybe two or three consulting companies out there bidding on a project in their area; now they may be [up] against 12 consulting companies on a project they weren’t even going after before,” Decker says.

“It’s a bigger field out there for them. So it’s very competitive, and we have to make sure that we are on our game and we give them not only a fair price but the data and technical support and superior service, each and every time.”

Luckily, Decker’s employees really understand the needs of TestAmerica’s clients. “The staff continues to find creative solutions to all challenges that are thrown our way,” he says. “When we need help, we also have a phenomenal network of sister laboratories that can support our clients.”

At times Decker’s clients need results in 24 hours or less. In such cases, Decker once again relies on his organized and dedicated team.

“Unfortunately, we don’t always get the schedule when they’re sampling, so we rely on people who work overtime and work second shifts,” he says. “I have to admit I really have a great group of people here, and we’ve been fortunate for many years with [this] group.”

An important aspect of the job, Decker indicates, is morale. “We have to come in here and we have to enjoy what we do, love what we do, embrace it and move forward.”

“It is a lot like playing a game; you have to enjoy playing the game. You’re always looking ahead a few steps, trying to figure out what you’re going to do next, and you have to be sure; you can’t just sit around and wait. You have to really have constant improvement in a laboratory at all times.”

In order to achieve this, Decker holds an operations meeting every morning to review the backlog, evaluate how each department is doing, pinpoint any issues, decide where they need to pull labor and identify the problem of the day. Decker and the managers then try to even out the load as best they can and also make sure that they can get results out to their clients in time.

Additionally, every month Decker spearheads a meeting that covers major achievements, in order to make people realize that there are some great things going on and that there is no need to dwell on the problems.

“Communication is the buzzword,” he adds. “We try to make sure that everybody understands what’s going on with various projects. We must emphasize why the sampling project is so important for the client. Basically, we make sure that everybody’s on board with what’s going on and [that] all the necessary information is disseminated throughout the groups within the lab,” Decker explains.

Decker and his management team also organize events such as wellness fairs, picnics and luncheons for jobs well done during the course of a month—all attempts to make and keep the staff happy with their jobs.

All this is due to Decker’s dedication to his job, a task that he makes a part of his life, whether he is in the lab or not.

“My day starts when I leave work,” Decker says. “After my kids go to sleep and my wife is reading, I will usually log on and see what’s going on with emails, just to keep track of them so I shouldn’t have more than a few emails in the morning. [That’s when] I like to get around and visit the lab, see what’s going on in the laboratory, get a feel for it.”