Tom Pratt has worked as a laboratory analyst for SOCOTEC for the last four years. He is primarily responsible for managing the workload within the lab, ensuring that agreed turnaround times are met by allocating appropriate resources to each particular work stream. Here, Tom outlines his key responsibilities of his varied role, which ranges from quality control checks to laboratory tours.
How did you become a laboratory analyst?
I joined SOCOTEC as a laboratory technician in July 2013 shortly after completing my degree in Forensic Science. Thanks to my degree, I had already gained prior experience of working in a lab and knew that this was an area that I wanted to pursue career-wise. After just over a year in the role, I was trained up to become a laboratory analyst and gained my BOHS P401 qualification in May 2015. I was then promoted to laboratory coordinator in October of the same year, and I have worked in this role ever since.
What does your role generally entail?
As the lead communication contact within the lab, I am responsible for building and maintaining strong relationships with colleagues and clients, answering queries and inputting/issuing final results. I also produce monthly forecasts, outlining the predicted revenue and productivity across each of the work streams and daily/monthly reviews for comparison. This allows both myself and the team to highlight any areas that may require extra resources or training to keep up with demand.
In general, I don’t tend to have what you would call a ‘typical’ day. I have certain tasks that I am required to complete on a daily basis, but at the same time I also have to react to and deal with unplanned situations that may arise, such as issues with samples, client requests and urgent jobs being brought into the lab.
Are there different methods of bulk analysis required depending on each sample type?
We have a range of material types that are collected by SOCOTEC’s surveyors and brought back to the laboratory for bulk analysis, including cements, insulating boards, laggings, floor tiles and textured coatings. In a similar vein, we also receive samples from other surveying companies and undertake analysis on their behalf. These samples are analysed inside our fume cabinets using a stereomicroscope and tools, including tweezers, scalpel, pestle and mortar. If a sample contains suspect asbestos fibres, the fibres are removed using tweezers and placed into one of the five appropriate RI (refractive index) liquids on a microscope slide for further analysis. This is undertaken by using a polarised light microscope to fully analyse the optical properties of the sample.
Soil samples are generally more difficult to analyse due to their non-homogenous nature and the fact that any asbestos present is a contaminant. As a result, the next step in a laboratory analyst’s career is to be trained on how to analyse soil samples. The analytical procedure is a combination of those given in the HSG248 ‘Analyst’s Guide’ and in the Environment Agency document – ‘The Quantification of Asbestos in Soil’. These are now the industry norm for testing of asbestos in soil.
How do you ensure that the results obtained from sample analysis are as accurate as possible?
Each analyst goes through a strict quality control process before they are authorised to carry out commercial analysis. Upon successful completion of 20 quality control samples analysts are audited by SOCOTEC’s quality department to check competence. A system of rechecking of sample analyses is then introduced so that there is continuous monitoring of performance. To maintain the high standard of analysis and lab practice, annual audits on all analysts are completed by the quality department.
How do you explain your methods of asbestos sample analysis to clients?
Another key responsibility within my role is providing laboratory tours to clients to allow them to get to grips with sample analysis. Firstly, we ensure they have the correct PPE and have been briefed appropriately on our safety procedures before we discuss asbestos testing with them. We then give the client an introduction into asbestos and the different fibre types/materials that commonly contain the substance, as well as the health and safety precautions that we have to take in the lab. This is followed by a discussion on the processes involved when it comes to sample analysis, from the initial examination using a stereomicroscope (at up to x80 magnification) through to the evaluation of specific optical properties using a polarised light microscope.
As the final part of the lab tour, clients are shown a sample containing asbestos through the stereomicroscope so that they can see the fibres for themselves. They are then permitted to examine the optical properties of the asbestos sample under a polarised light microscope. Below are four examples that are most commonly shown to clients:
- Image 1 is a sample of cement that contains chrysotile fibres. This was viewed under a stereomicroscope at x20 magnification
- Image 2 is a soil sample containing chrysotile fibres, viewed under a stereomicroscope at x30 magnification
- Images 3 and 4 display the optical properties of chrysotile fibres viewed under a polarised light microscope
What is the most interesting project that you have been involved in during your career?
We have recently been responsible for analysing a series of soil samples collected by our Contaminated Land team, forming part of their consultancy works for a high profile infrastructure project taking place across the UK.
What is the biggest challenge that you have faced while on the job?
Keeping up with the constant demand of samples coming into the lab can prove extremely challenging at times, especially if the team is already at maximum capacity. We have to be both proactive and reactive in order to manage the expected workload, as well as being ready to react to urgent or unplanned jobs that need to take priority. We are fortunate to be one of six SOCOTEC asbestos labs in the UK and can request support from the other five labs during periods of peak demand.
Do you have any advice for individuals starting a career in laboratory analysis within the asbestos sector?
If you have a strong interest in lab work, a natural enthusiasm for analytical tasks and a willingness to learn a new discipline that allows you to progress as you gain experience, a career in laboratory analysis may well be the right career path for you.
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