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Common Causes of Errors in the Lab

The financial cost of lab errors has been estimated at $180,000 per annum.

 Two-thirds of all medical decisions rely on lab testing. Subsequently, errors can cause delays in diagnosis and treatment as well as patients receiving incorrect treatments.

Mitigating against and eliminating errors is critical for labs. We will explore the most common causes of errors in the lab as well as how to overcome them.

Environmental causes of errors in the lab

There are a number of environmental causes that can lead to errors and subsequently, to sample contamination in the lab. Air-borne contaminants and simple changes in humidity and in light can lead to contamination. Temperature changes, for example, can lead to instability in reagents and solutions, all of which in turn affect the reliability and accuracy of results. 

Procedural causes of errors in the lab

Procedural causes of errors in labs are simply staff members not following the required processes. The roots of this error lie in poor lab leadership, inadequate (or lack of) training and a lack of clear and understandable documentation being provided. All of these points make it very challenging for consistency and reproducibility.

Human causes of errors in the lab

Human error is the most common cause of mistakes in the lab. Stress and anxiety are key triggers (for example, ongoing stress to improve diagnostic accuracy whilst processing higher workloads at a faster rate). Stress and anxiety rate high with the Anxiety and Depression Association of America reporting that 56% of staff say stress negatively affects their job performance and 50% state that it affects the quality of their work.

Human error also occurs because of a lack of staff engagement. Many manual tasks are routine, repetitive, onerous and just dull. This leads to boredom and a lack of concentration. We should also not discount the fact that humans are not machines. You can push hard but we all tire at some point and that’s when errors occur.

Instrumental causes of errors in the lab

Instrumental causes of laboratory errors are often overlooked, and yet they can be very costly. Instrumental errors can be technical or procedural in nature. A technician might not have been properly trained or may have used a contaminated sample to perform a test.

Some common instrumental causes of errors in the lab include:

  • Using an expired reagent or instrument calibration set
  • Using incorrect equipment due to miscommunication

Errors can be mitigated and eliminated

There are a number of steps that labs can take to reduce and actually eliminate errors. These include:

  • Training – this includes training of staff in the necessary procedural steps & how to use the equipment properly as well as how to deal with stress and anxiety. One should not overlook the need for leadership training too. Team members’ level of engagement and alignment with the lab’s value & culture are typically directly linked to their immediate supervisor.
  • Ensuring your instruments are working properly and keeping up with maintenance and service.
  • Documentation & communication – the lab technician’s step by step actions need to be documented and communicated to ensure reproducibility and consistency.  This also helps traceability (defined as being able to trace something back to the origin and see where the error happened and why).  
  • Automation – a big chunk or errors can be addressed through lab automation solutions because it allows for minimal human intervention. 

Less touches = less errors

This is especially acute when you consider studies that show 7% of errors occur in the pre-analytical stage. Automation also frees up time from mundane tasks allowing for greater staff engagement and more time for other value adding activities.  Moreover, automation can reduce manual data entry and thereby improve traceability.


Errors are a part of lab life.  This has been true for some time but advances in technology mean that we can address them much more effectively.  It’s important to understand why they occur so as to apply the right solutions and ensure they have the greatest effect to help your lab  operate at its highest level of efficiency. 

Get in touch with us to discuss how we can help you reduce errors in the lab. 

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