Friday, November 21, 2014

getting samples shipped

I think I'm at the final piece of my sample shipment/management saga. Part 1 is here, part 2 is here, part 3 is here, and part 4 is here. Let's recap. When shipping samples, you need to make sure that the custody seals are all in place, that the COC is filled out and signed properly, that the samples will stay cold, but not so cold that they'll freeze, that the sample containers won't break, that the samples are sealed in their cooler, that the cooler is sealed and labelled properly...and every step is part of a strict procedure that will cause big headaches for the project if there's a breakdown.

That's all well and good. The problem is that when shipping samples, you are invariably on a deadline. You can keep some samples on ice for a while, and ship when you get around to it (for example, metals analysis for soils). But some samples, like those for microbial analysis, need to go out ASAP, such as the same day. Samples for other common analyses, such as volatile organic compounds (VOCs), really need to go out in a day or two to meet holding time requirements. So you've got to get those samples out the door. Here's my list of favorite to least favorite shipping times/options:

1. The lab is less than 30 minutes away. You are allowed to contact the lab directly (don't ask). You call up in a dither because you're inundated with samples and you're going to be late. The lab is normally open until 6 or 7 PM, but some kind soul will come back or wait for you to drag your samples over.

2. You are within reasonable driving distance of a commercial/ reasonably sized airport. The final FedEx acceptance time at a regional airport is usually 10 PM. For a major airport, it may be midnight.

3. You are somewhat close to a commercial/industrial hub, and you can find a FedEx within reasonable driving distance with an acceptance time of 7 or 8 PM.

4. You have a lab courier, and you can convince the courier to swing by you last. The courier is used to dealing with field staff who aren't quite ready for the pickup, and is usually fine with waiting another couple of minutes. Also, if you have a courier, your shipment requirements aren't nearly as onerous.

5. The local FedEx isn't a major distribution center, so it stops accepting samples at 5 or 6.

6. There is no local FedEx distribution center. You can arrange for a pickup time. You're on a major field project, and the FedEx person has become used to/is mildly amused by your frantic last-minute cooler wrapping antics. They will stop by later, at the end of the run, or can be bribed with trailer coffee to wait for a few minutes.

7. You can only get an afternoon pickup time and the FedEx driver will only stop for 30 seconds and won't come back later. Or you're not on a FedEx route at all, and the only place you can drop off your samples is a local copy shop an hour away, and their posted last pickup time is mid-afternoon.

I have many a hair-raising story about racing to meet shipment deadlines. Some involve field crew illegally crouched in the back of some large-ish vehicle, frantically wrapping coolers while the driver breaks speed records. Others involve planting someone in the doorway so the distribution center can't close, while someone else wraps coolers in the parking lot.

There are some people who really enjoy sample management/shipment - getting all the bottles organized, making sure everything is labelled/wrapped/sorted just so, and then keeping their head when everything goes nuts right before the shipping deadline. I am not that person.

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