Europe: BELAC (Belgium's accreditation body) is a signatory to the EA (European Accreditation) multilateral agreement which covers all areas: tests calibration, inspection and certification.
World: BELAC has signed multilateral agreements with the IAF (International Accreditation Forum) which provides international recognition for sysyems and products and with the ILAC (International Laboratory Accreditation Cooperation) for testing laboratories and inspection bodies.
These multilateral agreements are intended to recognise the competence of the accredited bodies and laboratories outside their home country in all countries that have signed these agreements.
These MLA (MultiLateral Agreements) are based on mutual recognition with the aim of establishing the equivalence of accreditation issued by different national bodies.
The way they work is very simple: any accreditation service provided by one of the signatories to the agreement is recognised in the countries of all the other signatories.
The purpose of these agreements is the use and acceptance of the results provided by accredited laboratories and bodies including those in other countries. According to the ILAC the aim summaried as "tested once, accepted everywhere" may become a reality.
For example, a Belgian company accredited by BELAC could tell a French client that its certificate is as trustworthy as a certificate issued by the French accrediation body, Cofrac, because of the European multilateral agreement.
Thanks to this recognition, companies can use bodies accredited in the signatory countries with total peace of mind, knowing that having "bought" an accreditaion service they do not have to have it validated again. This provides a stimulous to support the international development of companies.
The difference between accreditation and certification
Although accreditation and certification complement each other and use the same methodology, they do not have the same objectives or the same purpose. It is therefore important to distinguish between them:
Recognition by an authoritative body (COFRAC in France and BELAC in Belgium) which demonstrates that your organisation conforms to the requirements specified in the standard and is also technically competent to carry out the specific tests for which you have chosen to be accredited
Recognition by a recognised independent body that demonstrates that your organisation conforms to the requirements specified in the standard.
A distinction must therefore be made between the different approaches.
Laboratories/bodies may be verified and certified according to ISO 9001. This standard is generally used by manufacturers and service organisations to assess the quality management systems they have set up for their products or services. In short, this certification ensures that the continuous improvement of the quality system.
Although it is actually a management assessment tool, ISO 9001 does not assess a supplier's technical competence. This means that assessment of a supplier on the basis of ISO 9001 does not guarantee that the results of tests, inspections or calibration are correct and reliable.
Unlike ISO 9001 certfication, a laboratory is only given accreditation according to the procedures and criteria that have been particularly developed to determine its technical competence. Specialist technical assessors carry out a detailed examination of all the factors in a laboratory that affect the production of test data and calibration. This criteria is based on accepted international standards such as ISO/IEC 17025.
Accreditation is therefore intended to recognise not only that the applicant is well organised but also that it carries out its business ethically and according to internationally accepted standards (impartiality, independence, technical competence).
Accreditation therefore goes further than certification by providing recognition not only of conformity of the quality system but also of the competence of the men and women employed by the laboratory/body concerned.
Laboratories want to know if they should be accredited or certified. The answer is clear: accreditation is a more robust concept than certification as it recognises competence. It is therefore more appropriate for a laboratory to be accredited if it wants to demonstrate the necessary confidence for carrying out its tests and analyses.
Why is it important for a laboratory to be accredited?
Accreditation provides an assessment of the laboratory's technical competence for carrying out particular tests, measurements and calibrations. It also represents a formal recognition awarded to competent laboratories, which enables consumers to find and choose reliable testing, measurement and calibration services to meet their needs.
Aims and advantages of an accreditation approach:
establishing trust between the client and the accredited laboratory in the quality of the services provided,
assuring the client that the test, calibration and measurement data provided by the accredited laboratory is accurate and reliable,
ensuring that the technical competences of the accredited laboratory are maintained and developed,
ensuring the validity and relevance of the test methods used,
Laboratory accreditation: compulsory or voluntary?
Increasingly, accreditation is growing in the regulatory area. It is therefore required by the public authorities as a pre-condition for implementation of a national regulation.
In France, for example, the Medical Biology Laboratories (LBM) cannot carry out a medical biology examination without accredition. By 2016 all French laboratories must be accredited by COFRAC. There is no other alternative.
Nevertheless, accredition is essentially voluntary. A laboratory's motivation for obtaining accreditation lies in its desire to be recognised for its technical competences by rigorous accreditation bodies and by other service providers and competitors.
It is on this voluntary basis that HeX obtained its ISO 17025 accredition in 2011, which enabled it to ensure:
its quality management system conformed to ISO 17025,
it had a programme to manage the technical competence of employees
test methods were valid and relevant,
selected, calibrated and controlled equipment is used,
a suitable environment is provided for carrying out tests,
the handling and transport of samples for testing is controlled,
the quality assurance of test and calibration data.