Debbie Knight

The White Glove Test. Adventures of An Unannounced Lab Inspection

In observation on March 10, 2011 at 2:32 pm

A university radiation safety officer inspected my lab today.

And because the inspections are unannounced, there’s no way to truly be prepared for them – except to follow the safety guidelines at all times.

You would think that after all these years it would be a well-orchestrated dance and that I wouldn’t get nervous. But every inspection I get nervous – you know, awkward school girl nervous.

While I’m fairly confident that the records were maintained properly, the question “Will he find anything wrong?” always seems to pop into my head.

I guess it’s because I’m the person in charge of radiation safety for the lab. So, whether I use radioactivity or my lab mates use it, I’m the one who has to answer to the inspector should something turn up.

The inspector looks for several things, but record keeping is an area on which he will focus.

When I first started working at the university, all the record keeping was maintained on paper forms. And there were many forms – all of which had to be filled out properly.

Now, the university uses an online record keeping system which has highly simplified record keeping. However, we do still have paper records for the routine surveys we need do in the lab.

These surveys use an instrument called a “survey meter” (or a “Geiger counter”) which has a sensor that can detect certain kinds of radioactive material. We have to document those findings on a form.

The surveys also use a more sensitive technique called smear wipes which will detect all radioactive materials used in the lab. This involves taking a small piece of paper, smearing along a working surface to pick up any radioactive material that might have spilled (which hopefully it didn’t!). After the paper is placed in a container, a liquid called scintillation fluid is added — this helps enhance the signal detected by an instrument called a “scintillation counter.” Again, these findings are documented on the form.

Surveys have to be documented after each experiment.

Another thing the inspector will look for is the radioactive material we actually have in the lab – this could be the original vial the material came in or the waste generated during the experiment. All radioactive material must be accounted for.

If the discrepancies in surveys or inventory are severe enough, the lab will no longer be able to use radioactive materials. So it’s important to keep meticulous records.

It’s a lot of responsibility, being in charge of the lab’s radioactive material.  And this is why I get so nervous.

I was a little more stressed about this inspection because I had just rejoined my former lab and I had no idea what my predecessors had done or what the inspector might find. Nor did I know personally where all the radioactive material was in the lab – did they keep it in the same places as when I worked there three years ago? I certainly hoped so.

Fortunately, this inspection went well.

I was able to find all inventoried items and to show him where the paperwork was located.

So, with a big sigh of relief (until the next time) I can happily report that we passed the inspection with flying colors.


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