The why and how of getting your lab accredited

Sunday, 08 February, 2004



Accreditation confirms and recognises your laboratory's competence to perform specific types of testing, measurement, inspection and calibration. Accreditation also allows you to determine whether your laboratory is performing its work correctly and to appropriate standards, and it provides a benchmark for maintaining your testing competence.

Many laboratories operate in isolation to their peers, and rarely, if ever, receive any independent technical evaluation as a measure of their performance. A regular audit by an accreditation body such as the National Association of Testing Authorities (NATA) checks all aspects of a laboratory's operations related to consistently producing accurate and dependable data. Areas for improvement are identified and discussed, and a detailed report provided at the end of each visit. Where necessary, follow-up action is monitored by NATA, so you can be confident that you have undertaken the appropriate corrective action.

Many manufacturing organisations also use NATA accreditation to ensure that the testing of their products by their own in-house laboratories is being undertaken properly.

A recognition of testing competence

NATA accreditation can be an effective marketing tool for your organisation. It can be a passport to submit tenders to contractors that require independently verified facilities, especially for government contracts. Many industries, such as the construction materials industry, routinely specify NATA accreditation for suppliers of testing services. Other industrial contractors who want to minimise their risks also specify testing to be performed by NATA accredited laboratories.

NATA accredited testing facilities are able to use the widely-recognised NATA logo on their test certificates and in general advertising. NATA accreditation is highly regarded both nationally and internationally as a reliable indicator of technical competence and the use of the NATA logo and use of a NATA endorsement on test certificates tells prospective and current clients that the laboratory has been evaluated and approved against best international practice. Suppliers and clients therefore have confidence when they buy or use services from a NATA accredited facility.

NATA's national Internet-based directory of its accredited laboratories provides full details on laboratories' testing capabilities and contact details and is updated on a daily basis. Clients can also contact NATA directly and find out whether there are any accredited laboratories that can perform the tests or calibrations they require. Clients may also check with the laboratory as to what specific tests, inspections or measurements they are accredited for, and for what ranges or uncertainties.

The Commonwealth Government requires the use of NATA accredited facilities to satisfy its testing needs, and has encouraged state governments and other instrumentalities to do likewise. All Commonwealth Government laboratories are required, under a Memorandum of Understanding between NATA and the Commonwealth, to obtain and maintain NATA accreditation.

The advantages of accreditation are best captured by a laboratory manager at AgriQuality GMO Services who recently gained NATA accreditation: "As a NATA-accredited testing laboratory, AgriQuality can assure food processors, retailers and regulatory authorities of the highest level of skill and competency to provide them with accurate, reliable test results for food and plant products and animal feeds."

How do I get my laboratory accredited?

Preliminary steps

Your laboratory's management are firstly encouraged to hold discussions with NATA's technical staff before lodging an application for accreditation and become familiar with the NATA Accreditation Requirements (NAR) for the field of testing relevant to their application.

If desired, an informal review of laboratory facilities can be undertaken by a NATA staff officer to examine the major non-technical elements of your system. Such a review, called an advisory visit, may be conducted either prior to, or after your application has been made. NATA technical staff will be able to tell you whether an advisory visit is recommended.

Applying for accreditation

Any legally identifiable organisation providing testing, inspection or calibration services can apply for accreditation in any of the following fields:

  • Acoustic and vibration measurement
  • Biological testing
  • Chemical testing
  • Construction materials testing
  • Electrical testing
  • Forensic science
  • Good laboratory practice
  • Heat and temperature measurement
  • Information security
  • Inspection
  • Mechanical testing
  • Medical imaging
  • Medical testing
  • Metrology
  • Non-destructive testing
  • Optics and radiometry
  • Software testing
  • Veterinary testing
  • Wool testing

On applying, you will be required to provide a copy of your laboratory's quality manual, plus any other quality system/technical documentation as advised by NATA.

The authorised representative

The authorised representative is the person nominated by your laboratory to act as your representative to NATA in all matters relating to the application or accreditation. For practical reasons, the authorised representative is normally a senior member of your staff who is in a position to make decisions regarding the laboratory's accreditation and to effectively communicate with laboratory colleagues.

The assessment

Compliance with accreditation requirements is determined primarily by an on-site assessment of your resources, procedures and documentation. The objective of the assessment is to establish whether your laboratory can competently perform the tests/examinations for which accreditation is sought. The assessment team is required to investigate the operation of your laboratory against the NATA Accreditation Requirements and report its findings both to you and to NATA's Accreditation Advisory Committee for that area of testing or calibration.

The assessment involves a thorough evaluation of all the elements of your laboratory that contribute to the production of accurate and reliable test data. These elements include:

  • Staffing
  • Training
  • Supervision
  • Methods
  • Quality control
  • Proficiency testing
  • Equipment
  • Recording and reporting of test results and
  • The physical environment of the laboratory.

The technical assessors and at least one NATA staff officer are chosen according to their specialist knowledge and are matched as closely to the activities of your laboratory as possible. Assessments will take at least one full working day and may extend over. There is a review of case records of every analyst/examiner, interviews with your laboratory management, all analysts/examiners and as many technical and support staff as possible and a review of all documented procedures and associated records. An exit meeting is held at the conclusion of the assessment to allow frank and open discussion about the assessment findings. You are strongly encouraged to clarify any issues that you consider may have been misunderstood by the assessment team and to seek clarification about assessment findings where this is necessary.

The findings of the assessment team are confirmed to you in a formal report that details the action required by the laboratory to correct any deficiencies identified at the assessment.

The benefits of the assessment process are best articulated by a laboratory that recently gained accreditation in the healthcare area, IV&V Australia, whose Managing Director said "Participating in a third party assessment by NATA really helps to set us apart from the competitors. We always felt that we had fairly good test processes, however preparation for the NATA assessment forced us to tidy up our loose ends and really get our act together."

Granting accreditation

NATA's Board grants accreditation following a recommendation by the relevant NATA Accreditation Advisory Committee (AAC). Your laboratory's authorised representative is formally advised of the granting of the accreditation and issued with a certificate of accreditation and the scope of accreditation (detailing the specific activities covered by the accreditation).

Continuing accreditation

Once accredited, NATA is keen to ensure your laboratory maintains a consistent level of technical competence and ethical behaviour, with respect to delivering your accredited services to your clients. NATA undertakes surveillance on accredited facilities through a number of means such as:

  • Visits to laboratories on a two year cycle to conduct a reassessment of their operation;
  • Proficiency testing programs in which laboratories in that discipline must participate and submit their results for review; and
  • Irregular visits to service requests by the laboratory for changes in their accreditation, or to investigate complaints or concerns raised about the laboratory's performance.

NATA endeavours to be as fair and thorough as possible in investigating deficiencies identified at audits, in proficiency programs, or via complaints. For instance, when a follow-up visit is organised by NATA to investigate a deviation identified at an earlier assessment, a different team of technical assessors may be selected, so that a fresh perspective on the issue is obtained.

All information provided by your laboratory in connection with an enquiry or an application for accreditation or an assessment, is treated as confidential. NATA staff, technical assessors, Committee and Board members have signed confidentiality agreements. Upon gaining accreditation, NATA publishes your laboratory's contact details and scope of accreditation in the NATA website directory.

Conclusion

NATA has a unique perspective on technical competence and laboratory performance from its 55 years of accumulated experience. It has at its disposal the expertise of over 2600 technical assessors who work for the Association in a voluntary capacity and who all sign a confidentiality agreement when they join the assessor ranks. NATA is regularly in touch with industry and standards-writing bodies to act as a conduit on best laboratory practice and to advise on (and be alert for) deficiencies in test, inspection or calibration methods. NATA's accreditation criteria are developed and reviewed by experts working in the various technical disciplines, who are familiar with the application of these criteria to the laboratory environment. Supporting this approach is NATA's extensive range of proficiency testing programs, which supplements the surveillance of accredited facilities.

NATA adopts a constructive approach designed to helping your laboratory meet the relevant standards and achieve accreditation, and can provide helpful advice to those even at the very early stages of thinking about gaining accreditation. Free information on specific issues and procedures discussed above can be found on the NATA website (www.nata.asn.au).

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