Keeping it cool in the lab

  • Laboratory freezers can contain between £50-500,000 worth of research samples
  • An accidental defrost represents a major crisis
  • Simple risk management is essential to protect your investment

Everyone knows how costly it can be if they accidentally turn off their kitchen freezer – but universities face costs that go way beyond replacing fish fingers and frozen peas if something goes wrong with their cold storage.

In major scientific centres, the contents of lab freezers are typically worth between £50,000 and £500,000 in terms of materials and research value, according to Zurich Municipal. However, values over £1m are not uncommon.

This is because biologists frequently require materials to be kept at constant low temperatures to preserve their viability. If something goes wrong in these delicately-poised systems, they face losing everything, and the resulting delays in the publication of results can have a serious knock-on effect on department reputations.

But despite this risk, too many departments are neglecting their risk management and leaving themselves vulnerable to an accident – and substantial business interruption claims. Causes can be as simple as staff or students failing to shut a door properly or accidentally turning power off, as well as wider failure of the power or compressor breaking down.

Clear procedures needed

To mitigate this it is vital that universities put clear guidelines and procedures in place for anyone who operates within the same space as research freezers.

For a start, it’s vital to understand the size of your risk. A freezer audit is essential to get a sense of both the cost of the base materials being stored and the staff costs invested in the research. It is also important to record the existing risk management procedures and, where they fall short of ideal, make a plan to improve the situation immediately.

All research freezers should be fitted with temperature monitoring devices that have remote alarm functions to alert staff the moment a problem occurs – and you should make sure these don’t rely on the same power source as the freezers.

Ideally, all faculty freezers should be located together in a dedicated storage facility, as this reduces the risk of accidents and allows better safeguarding such as access control, air conditioning and fire security.

If things do go wrong, then it’s important to make sure that you have good emergency procedure in place – and that you have this displayed in a prominent place, such as on freezer doors. Consider investing in back-up freezers, generators and carbon dioxide cylinders that can provide power and storage in the event of a breakdown.

Minimise risks

Everyone using the freezers should be aware of how to minimise the risk to their research, for example by splitting samples between multiple freezers to reduce their vulnerability.

Temporary or visiting staff coming into the facility need to be properly briefed as well. While proper maintenance is vital, any staff testing the freezers need to be made aware of the value of its contents and advised to make sure their work doesn’t lead to a power outage. Any mechanical or electrical problems – such as blown fuses – need to be properly investigated and logged.

The biggest challenge is making sure these standards are maintained over time in busy environments with a rapid turnover of students. But by raising the status of good practice and creating clear and robust structures and communicating them clearly to everyone, universities can go a long way to cutting the risk of the worst happening.