In the first part of this series I made the case that standardized operating procedures (SOPs), while completely routine in industry, are often missing from academic education. In this essay, I propose a way for you as a university student to not only write a standard procedure, but to make that experience part of your scientific education. The title is a little lighthearted – I don’t intend for anyone to do it all alone. And this isn’t a quick tip or a “lab hack” – it is hard work and it takes time. But considering how much time you’ve spent learning how to do science, it’s also worthwhile to learn how to apply that education where it matters – like in a job.
A word of caution: This essay uses hazardous operations as an example of a procedure that should be standardized. If you’re a lab chemist, these are probably routine. If you don’t deal with lab hazards regularly, please don’t go out and find them. Pick something technical and meaningful – like calibrating an analytical instrument.
Unless you’re in an engineering field where using standard procedures is routine, writing an SOP for your lab will take initiative, and a certain amount of diplomacy (more on that later). I suggest you start with a hazardous procedure. Think pyrophoric reactions, or distilling organic solvents. Few will object if you propose to standardize one of these processes so that new students can be trained to work safely. And in this case, there is an added incentive – many universities are now requiring research groups to make SOPs for hazardous procedures after some high-profile lab accidents. Of course, this is the last thing students want to do, so the job is pretty much up for grabs.
Let’s assume you’ve volunteered for, or even become stuck with, the role of writing an SOP for a hazardous procedure. The first step is to go through any existing procedures and catalog any potential hazards. This is also an opportunity to talk to people with experience (and hopefully common sense) about best practices. Watch someone in your group carry out the procedure – are there things that could be done better? Don’t worry – there will be plenty.
Now comes the writing work: Your job is to produce a document that not only gives a step-by-step method for how to safely do the task, but also describes the risks involved, how to mitigate them, and the criteria to know when it’s done right. You can find plenty of resources online (see references below), or from your Environmental Health & Safety (EHS) department. They love this stuff, and will have plenty of examples of SOPs for you to use as a guide.
At this point you have a document, and this is where the SOP writing process stops for most university labs. The document is saved, signed, placed in a binder on a shelf somewhere, and generally forgotten about until the next safety inspection. But your work is not done. Your next step is to have someone watch you carry out the procedure while taking notes to see what’s missing or ambiguous. What is the order of operations? What type of gloves are needed? What exactly does the pressure reading need to be before you start step 17, etc? The process will take multiple iterations, and careful editing to keep it concise and readable.
When you’re ready, demonstrate the procedure for your group and get their feedback. Even better, invite an EHS representative to come read the SOP and observe the process. Be ready to get some criticism – these things are never perfect. To complete the cycle, put in place a regular review process to revise and improve the procedure. The best way to make the written procedure meaningful is for lab members to feel they are part of the process of improving it.
When this work is done, what will you have achieved? From the perspective of an academic researcher focused on publications, you’ve spent a lot of time on something that was working just fine before you came along. From the work you put in you’ll get no publications, no presentations, and possibly no thanks.
So where is the payoff to standardizing a procedure? First, if you worked on a hazardous operation you will prevent serious accidents, and that’s not trivial. If well written, your procedure may become the new standard for your lab or department, and likely the only one that has been tested and revised according to actual practice. Also the experimental results that rely on the procedure will improve, assuming you consider reproducibility to be an improvement. But the real benefit, which goes far beyond lab safety, is the process of turning a complex procedure with many variables into something that can be organized, described, and taught to someone else. That experience has value, and you should be proud to present it as part of your scientific education.
Standard Operating Procedures, University of Illinois Division of Research Safety.
If you’re tackling a hazardous procedure, this is a good starting point.
Standard Operating Procedures, A Writing Guide. Penn State College of Agricultural Sciences.
Written for the dairy industry, where small mistakes can be very costly. This is a great guide not just for writing procedures, but making them appropriate to the environment where they will be implemented.