Behind the Clipboard: Adventures of a Lab InspectorPosted on by
You might think being a laboratory inspector is a boring job – the kind of work that’s suited to glasses-wearing, clipboard-carrying types who hate adventure and love enforcing rules. However, during a recent sit-down with a small group of CDC inspectors, I discovered their jobs are anything but dull.
The inspectors I spoke with are tasked with keeping tabs on some of the nation’s most critical research laboratories – those that are registered to handle many of the world’s deadliest pathogens and poisons, like anthrax, plague, smallpox, and ricin. The lifesaving research done in these labs protects our country from unfathomable threats. It’s the inspectors’ job to make sure this critical work is done as safely and securely as possible according to government regulations.
Many of the inspectors are introverts, and all take their work extremely seriously, recognizing that lives are at stake. They travel to registered labs all over the country. They observe and ask lots of questions. They check every piece of paper. They watch hours of surveillance video. They are very, very meticulous.
But this doesn’t mean they don’t have a sense of humor about what it really takes – down in the trenches – to keep the lifesaving research done in these labs safe and secure. Here are some surprising things they told me about their work.
Inspections generally last about three days, and inspectors go out to sites about once a month on average, but that can vary. One inspector notes that she conducted 26 inspections in a single year. Traveling so much means a lot of waiting around in airports, but sometimes the trip takes a turn toward the unexpected.
“We were flying – about 100 miles from landing – when a volcano erupted in Alaska,” she recalled. “We had to turn around and were stranded in Seattle for three days. Later, I was on an inspection where we had an earthquake on a Tuesday and a hurricane that Friday.” She laughed. “I’ve become known for being natural disaster prone.”
Keeping it clean
If you’re an inspector, you might have to shower. A lot. At some labs, anyone exiting the lab has to strip down, take a shower, and change clothes. One lab inspector said he showered out a total of 17 times during a single inspection.
“One time,” said another inspector, “The power cut off as we were showering out. We had three men there – one waiting to go in, one in, and one just exiting the shower. We couldn’t see anything, so we all just stood there, naked and in the dark, for forty-five minutes.”
Labs sometimes keep animals on the premises, and it’s the inspector’s job to check on every animal in the facility and make sure it’s being properly taken care of. Whether it’s inspecting an aquarium full of Australian cone snails or a cage of chinchillas, this can lead to some interesting exchanges.
“I learned that you can’t put on a Tyvek [protective] suit before going into a room with an elk,” reported one inspector. “They hate the noise the fabric makes when you move.” In fact, he added, you also can’t wear any kind of powered respirator around them without causing a panic.
Food, glorious food
Labs do a lot of work to protect our food supply. Sometimes there are huge set-ups that mimic a factory floor: a large flume for washing lettuce, or a skid that can process 800 pounds of peanut butter. The inspectors put on their heavy suits and go in to check the details. “You have to figure out how the regulations apply to every situation, no matter how unique it is,” they say.
“I’m used to seeing pipettes and safety cabinets,” said one inspector. “But once I went into a lab that had dog biscuits and muffins all laid out for testing. It smelled terrific.”
A passion to protect
I asked the inspectors for final thoughts on what they do. “The people who work here are some of the most dedicated people I know,” one answered right away. “They work hard.”
“I think the impact of our work is important to talk about,” said another. “The impact of this work is to allow important research to be done. Research that involves risk. And our job is to allow this work to continue with as little risk as possible.”
All the lab inspectors were proud of the relationships they’ve managed to build over time. “We used to be seen as the enemy, the ‘men in black’ coming to judge you. But it’s not that way as much anymore,” an inspector told me. “At the end of the day, we’re here to help. We want to work alongside labs to make sure their workers and the public stay safe. I think everyone is recognizing that.”