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Behind the Clipboard: Adventures of a Lab Inspector

Posted on by Jessica Alexander

Lab inspectors

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.Select agents are biological agents and toxins that have the potential to pose a severe threat to public health and safety, to animal and plant health, or to animal or plant products. CDC’s Division of Select Agents and Toxins regulates those labs that handle germs and poisons that can cause disease in humans.

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.

Trouble with travelFour biosafety lab levels

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.”

Animal adventures

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.”

Posted on by Jessica AlexanderTags , , , , , ,

6 comments on “Behind the Clipboard: Adventures of a Lab Inspector”

Comments listed below are posted by individuals not associated with CDC, unless otherwise stated. These comments do not represent the official views of CDC, and CDC does not guarantee that any information posted by individuals on this site is correct, and disclaims any liability for any loss or damage resulting from reliance on any such information. Read more about our comment policy ».

    Great article blog post Jessica! As I am a current Laboratory Scientist, this truly hits home! Also very inspirational and helps to focus our attention on the importance of laboratory safety, through out many facilities.
    Thank you.

    I just wanted to say thank you for the great job you all do. I also wanted to thank you for sharing your knowledge and educating others.

    I am trained as a clinical lab microbiologist. How can someone like me get training to become a restaurant/food preparation inspector. Is there coursework that has to be taken at the CDC or certification coursework offered at different colleges recognized by the CDC to transition into this line of work? Thank you.

    Its nice to see the task at these variety of labs… As an EHS worker, I enjoyed this article.

    I would like to know strategies for shifting from being seen as the so called “Men In Black” or the “Lab Police” into a friendly relationship (quality mangement and risk focused?). That may be a new article.

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