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Step-by-step: Writing effective laboratory standard operating procedures

School of Public Health researcher provides guidance on designing and writing effective SOPs for safer working conditions

Working in a laboratory can sometimes be dangerous. Certain substances and equipment can cause serious injury or even death if not handled properly. Minimizing risk calls for using protective equipment, training workers, and developing standard operating procedures (SOPs). However, despite extensive information on what to include in SOPs, there is little guidance on how to design and write them.

A new paper published in the journal ACS Chemical Health & Safety aims to provide some needed guidance for SOP writers. In this paper, S. Camille Peres, PhD, associate professor at the Texas A&M University School of Public Health, uses a Human Factors/Ergonomics approach to develop guidelines for SOPs that can support safe and accurate performance by laboratory workers.

Human Factors/Ergonomics is a scientific discipline that leverages the abilities, characteristics and limitations of people to design equipment, environments and tools (e.g., procedures). This approach is crucial for reducing human error and improving performance and safety, especially in high-risk areas. When creating SOPs, placing focus on the people using them allows for a user-centered design that is both usable and effective.

Peres outlines the process of creating SOPs using a user-centered approach, starting with determining the appropriate SOP format. Not long ago, the only feasible format for SOPs was on paper as portability and being able to collect documentation is key. Today, mobile devices like tablets and smartphones make digital SOPs feasible. Digital SOPs also allow for quicker feedback on steps and an easier and more reliable update process.

After choosing a format, SOP designers must then turn to subject matter experts when creating procedures. A common method has been having experts write steps themselves, but research shows that experts can sometimes skip including steps that they either perform automatically or assume are obvious. Because of this, Peres recommends that SOPs be written by someone who is familiar with, but not an expert at, the task. Experts can then review the SOPs afterward to ensure accuracy.

Peres also notes that SOP writers should follow a few basic guidelines to ensure well-written procedures. These include keeping content concise, writing steps in the order they should be performed and including special instructions or information on hazards in the steps of the procedures themselves. Interestingly, studies have found that when embedded in procedures, using boxes or colors to call attention to information is largely ineffective and that users often skip passages written at the beginning of procedures (i.e., users skip to the first step of the procedure).

Writing SOPs often takes multiple revisions and feedback from users with varying levels of experience. Additionally, SOPs should be tested by people who would normally use the documents to find potential shortcomings in the documents before they are used in an actual laboratory. Peres notes that testing and feedback requires a reliable system to document and make changes to the SOP when needed.

Writing SOPs using practices based on how humans actually work can lead to safer and more accurate laboratory work. Keeping content brief, including all necessary information in the procedure steps, and thoroughly testing and revising SOPs are a few ways to develop and maintain quality documentation. This is especially important in academic laboratories where many of the workers have less experience and can be unsure when they should speak up. High quality SOPs, together with training and protective equipment, are crucial for reducing the risks inherent in laboratory work.

Media contact: Dee Dee Grays, grays@tamu.edu, 979.436.0611

Rae Lynn Mitchell

SPH - Director of Communications and Alumni Affairs

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