What is accreditation?
Accreditation is a procedure by which an authoritative body provides formal recognition that a body or person is competent to carry out specific tasks.
Accreditation and trade
The international trade environment largely influences the need for accreditation of CABs as governments increase technical barriers to trade in an effort to regulate their markets. Accreditation provides assurance to trading partners that an exporting country is competent to test, inspect or certify to the trading partners’ requirements, thus overcoming trade barriers by assuring compliance to the WTO/TBT Agreement.
Such an accreditation could be granted to different types of CABs, such as inspection bodies, certification bodies (product, management systems and personnel) and laboratories. Laboratory accreditation, therefore, is the formal recognition of an organisation’s technical competency to perform specific tests, types of tests or calibrations.
Accreditation of laboratories ensures that test results can be reproduced to a sufficient degree in any accredited laboratory. It is an independent method of monitoring laboratory competence and performance and it assures the validity of results to users. An accredited laboratory can establish Mutual Recognition Agreements (MRAs) with counterpart bodies. These agreements ensure equivalency of systems in different countries. There is automatic acceptance of test results from accredited laboratories, which are parties to a given MRA. Costs are reduced because there is no need for duplicate testing by both exporters and importers and this serves to eliminate technical trade barriers and facilitate trade.
Using accredited laboratories also facilitates economic growth. The accrediting process relies on a uniform approach to determining laboratory competence – an approach that has been accepted and implemented across many borders. Because of internationally-accepted testing and measurement practices, data generated by an accredited laboratory may lead to the more ready acceptance of exported goods in overseas markets.
The ISO publication, “Building Trust: The Conformity Assessment Toolbox” (page 40), defines accreditation as: “…a conformity assessment technique specifically related to the assessment of the conformity of conformity assessment bodies by a third party body, generally known as an accreditation body”
Accreditation standards and criteria
Two international standards are used for the purposes of accreditation – ISO/IEC 17025 “General requirements for the competence of Testing and Calibration laboratories”, and ISO 15189 “Medical Laboratories – Particular requirements for Quality and Competence”.
Laboratory accreditation uses criteria based on the international standards specifically developed to determine technical competence. Specialist technical assessors contracted by accreditation bodies conduct a thorough evaluation of all factors in a laboratory that affect the production of the test and / or calibration data to ensure accurate and reliable results. These factors are:
- technical competency of staff;
- validity and appropriateness of test methods;
- traceability of measurements and calibrations to national standards;
- suitability, calibration and maintenance of test equipment;
- testing environment;
- sampling, handling and transportation of test items; and
- quality assurance of test and calibration data.
Difference between accreditation and certification
While certification is a confirmation of conformance of a product, service or system to established standards or requirements, accreditation establishes, for instance, the competence of a laboratory including requirements for laboratory personnel and operations.
Benefits of accreditation for laboratories
A regular assessment by an accreditation body checks all aspects of a facility’s operations related to consistently producing accurate and dependable data. Areas for improvement are identified and discussed and a detailed report provided at the end of each visit. Follow-up action is monitored by the accreditation body so the facility is confident that it has taken the appropriate corrective action.
Accreditation has the following benefits:
- test and/or calibration results from accredited labs provide confidence that supplies comply with specifications;
- test and/or calibration data contribute to consistently high quality products;
- users have confidence in the technical capability of the accredited lab;
- users of calibration services have confidence in the accuracy of their measurements;
- reliable test and/or calibration data aid the decision making process for tenders and contracts;
- it can be used as a marketing tool;
- it supports policies to keep abreast of new technological developments;
- it promotes continuous improvement of the services offered; and
- effective management of the laboratory quality system enhances staff discipline and development.
Recognition of technical competence
Accredited laboratories are able to issue test or calibration reports bearing the accreditation body’s logo or endorsement, as an indication of their accreditation. Clients are encouraged to check with the laboratory concerning the specific tests or measurements they are accredited for, and the ranges or uncertainties. This information is usually specified in the laboratory’s scope of accreditation. The description in the scope of accreditation enables customers to find the appropriate laboratory to test their products.
Many countries have adopted ISO/IEC 17025 and ISO 15189 as the basis for accreditation which has helped towards a uniform and internationally-accepted approach in determining laboratory competence. This approach allows countries to establish agreements among themselves, based on mutual evaluation and acceptance of each other’s accreditation systems. Such international agreements, called mutual recognition arrangements (MRAs), are crucial in enabling test and/or calibration data to be accepted between these countries. In effect, each partner in such an MRA recognises the other’s accredited laboratories as if they had undertaken the accreditation themselves. This has allowed data accompanying exported goods to be readily accepted in overseas markets and effectively lowers costs for both the manufacturers and importers, as it reduces the need for products to be re-tested.
CROSQ’s role in regional accreditation
The Caribbean Cooperation for Accreditation (CCA) Scheme was developed to assist the facilitation of trade within the Caribbean region and internationally. It is based on the principles of mutual cooperation and collaboration amongst the recognized National Accreditation Bodies (NABs), National Accreditation Focal Points (NAFPs) and the CROSQ Secretariat.
In May 2012, a Technical Cooperation Agreement was signed between the Trinidad and Tobago Laboratory Accreditation Service (TTLABS) and the Jamaica National Agency for Accreditation (JANAAC) to facilitate the harmonisation of procedures between the two accreditation bodies. Subsequently in April 2013, the CCA Scheme was formally established through the signing of a Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) between the CROSQ Secretariat and the NAFPs, as well as the CROSQ Secretariat and the NABs. JANAAC signed the International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation (ILAC) Mutual Recognition Arrangement in October 2013 for the scope of testing laboratories. TTLABS continues to move steadily towards signing on to this agreement for testing and medical laboratories.
Caribbean Cooperation for Accreditation (CCA) Scheme has since become a regional approach for facilitating regional highly skilled QI professionals to provide cost-effective accreditation and solutions for the region. The main objectives of CCA are to ensure that:
- Internationally recognised accreditation services are economical, affordable, convenient and readily accessible for the clients of the region, through what are known as National Accreditation Focal Points (NAFPs); and,
- Opportunities are afforded for market expansion and new product development, thereby assisting the growth and development of National Accreditation Bodies (NABs) in a sustainable manner.
The Benefits of the CCA
- Provide economical and readily accessible accreditation services;
- Facilitate assistance in the development of the Regional QI;
- Facilitate regional and international trade;
- Provide support for CROSQ’s mandate as a facilitator of regional and international trade;
- Provide the potential for manufacturers to expand their markets;
- Create partnerships with regional groups and industries;
- Give manufacturers local access to internationally recognised conformity assessment services;
- Improve the stability of NABs;
- Reduce the need for additional conformity assessment when products enter a new country.