Meet the team: Organics testing from soils, sediments and waters to meth and materials in-between | Hill Laboratories - NZ


Meet the team: Organics testing from soils, sediments and waters to meth and materials in-between

Date: 14 Jan 2023
Author: Hill Laboratories

When samples arrive for the Organics team at Hill Laboratories’ Duke Street reception, they may be soils, sediments, sludges, trade waste or more fluid samples like stormwater runoff, all the way to your purest drinking water. What’s fascinating about these materials is the information they contain. 

The answers to clients’ questions are in the samples and it is the job of the Organics Team to analyse the samples and provide clients with the information they need to make their relevant business decisions.

To carry out this work, Organics operates with four teams: Organics Prep, SHOC, Instruments, and Meth. 

Olivia Underwood, Section Manager of Organics, explains how the first three teams work together.

“Once samples are registered in reception, they will go to one of our two prep teams. The SHOC team process both water and soil samples. The soil testing is very high throughput, and is our screen testing. For this reason, it has the higher throughput of the two prep teams, with shorter turnaround times.

“The SHOC team process samples quickly, and need to be organised in doing so as other Hills’ teams will later utilise the same samples. Their testing covers several screen profiles; depending on the client’s needs and applicable regulation limits. 

“On the other hand, the Prep team take on more complex tests with trace samples on quite niche equipment. Accuracy is key.”

Once extracted, the Instruments team steps in and takes the sample vials from the prep teams to run through their range of sophisticated instruments, explains Simran Mundi, team leader of Organics Instruments.

“This is chemistry-heavy work and we use techniques like gas and liquid chromatography to look at samples in ultra-high resolution. 

“Once the Instruments team have analysed the data, we begin finding answers to the questions our client are asking.”

Checked, verified, approved

Data acquired by instruments is then run through software, analysed and put onto worksheets for technicians to review. Because of their considerable experience, these technicians can spot results that fall outside of expected parameters. 

“Our worksheet approvers are technical gurus; they are experts across extraction and analysis and have seen it all before. If they review a worksheet and respond with, ‘These results aren’t what we were expecting,’ then we can do some further investigation alongside the client. 

“These technicians are also good at troubleshooting the nature of the problem. Perhaps there was something in the sample that they weren’t expecting. We can use our technical knowledge and range of testing to ensure the client gets the results they need.

“They’re like a safety net to make sure everything gets checked, verified and approved before it gets to the client.”

Support also comes through the Organics Technology team, who can troubleshoot any instrumental or extraction issues to ensure smooth operations. Investigation, improvement, development and increasing efficiencies are their calling cards, but they are not opposed to pitching in and getting hands-on when needed.

Cradle-to-grave: the Meth team

In Organics, the Meth team operates in a slightly independent fashion. The relative simplicity of testing for meth allows them to work through the entire process, from sample registration and extraction, through to analysis and reporting. 

From Olivia’s perspective, it’s an efficient use of resource. 

“The reason meth is set up like this is because it's a reasonably simple, high-throughput test. There really is only one extraction method. So when you look at the staff allocated to that team, it's reasonable that they'll do that cradle to grave.

“Plus, on an average day the Meth team will process hundreds of samples. That’s a very high throughput, and it’s done under urgency; some jobs are due same-day, with all due within the next working day.”

Training for redundancy

Within Organics there are a range of disciplines, and people typically can spend years specialising in their teams. That makes sense and has developed some extremely competent and technical staff throughout operations. 

“Within our team, we train whenever possible. The importance of training was made clear when Covid meant changes to the working environment. We learned that we needed our people to be effective across a range or processes and to be competent with a variety of skills. The team did an amazing job with this, and everyone was agile and accountable during this time – two of our main company values!

“Training within the teams can take a long time because the learning is quite intensive, particularly for the Instruments team. We now have a level of skill redundancy that allows us to continue functioning effectively if unexpected staff shortages happen.”  

Olivia explains that the curveballs of the last few years has ultimately made the committed Organics team resourceful, dynamic and flexible; a well-oiled machine delivering accurate organic testing to Hills’ client base.