Close up of sterilizing medical instruments

Step-by-Step Guide to Sterilizing Laboratory Equipment

Learn the basics of how medical laboratory technicians sterilize laboratory equipment.

Close up of sterilizing medical instruments

Diagnosing a patient’s medical condition is often anything but straightforward. Swollen glands could be one of several different health issues. Could this symptom be an indication of tonsillitis or just a cold? Maybe it’s a seasonal allergy, or it could be strep.

Laboratory testing of bodily fluid samples will usually deliver the answer. That’s where the medical laboratory technician comes in, running tests on blood and other bodily fluids as ordered by doctors. While patients don’t interact with medical laboratory technicians, the fluid testing results will directly impact the patient’s diagnosis.

(Click here to review our complete list of medical lab tech duties & responsibilities)

The medical laboratory technician uses various laboratory equipment when testing bodily fluid samples. This equipment must be kept free of microorganisms and other contaminants. Sterilization is the preferred method for cleaning and maintaining laboratory equipment.

You can learn more about what it takes to become a medical laboratory technician. Below we will go over the details of how medical laboratory technicians sterilize the equipment they use daily.

What Are the Common Duties Performed by a Medical Laboratory Technician?

Before we get into sterilization techniques, we’ll review some general information involved with medical laboratory technicians, such as daily tasks, required training, and commonly used equipment.

Medical laboratory technicians usually are responsible for testing body fluid samples. Tissue samples are the responsibility of the medical laboratory scientist or a pathologist. These are the typical duties performed by a medical laboratory technician:

  • Analyze body fluid samples and record the findings.
  • Study blood samples for transfusions, identifying blood type, compatibility, and other attributes.
  • Operate sophisticated lab equipment, such as hematology analyzers and cell counters.
  • Use automated equipment and computerized equipment to facilitate more comprehensive testing.
  • Log data from all medical tests and enter it into the patient’s medical record.
  • Discuss results with the medical laboratory scientist.

What Training is Required to Become a Medical Laboratory Technician?

The job of medical laboratory technician is on our list of the best entry-level medical jobs in healthcare. To become a medical laboratory technician, you first need to earn a Medical Laboratory Technician associate degree from an accredited institution. Brookline College offers an excellent program enabling students to earn their Medical Laboratory Technician degree in as few as 64 weeks.

Once you have your degree, you then need to become certified by one of two major credentialing organizations, ASCP Board of Certification or American Medical Technologists.

The final step is acquiring a license in the state where you want to work. However, some states, such as North Carolina, don’t require you to have licensure.

What Laboratory Equipment is Used by Medical Laboratory Technicians?

Some laboratories have different sets of equipment, and their equipment is typically based on the lab’s specialty. Some labs specialize in areas such as dermatology and skin cancer, while others perform a range of tests. You’ll find metropolitan areas tend to offer more specialized medical laboratories than rural healthcare facilities. Still, there are standard pieces of laboratory equipment that almost every lab has. Some of the possible lab equipment used by the medical laboratory technician are:

  • Microscopes
  • Hematology analyzers
  • Blood gas analyzers
  • Autoclaves
  • Hotplates
  • Chemistry analyzers
  • Differential counters
  • Histology and cytology equipment
  • Urinalysis analyzers
  • DNA analyzers
  • Gamma counters
  • Microplate readers/washers
  • Incubators
  • Point-of-care analyzers
  • Immunoassay analyzers

Sterilized surgical instruments on a blue background

What Are the Common Methods of Sterilizing Laboratory Equipment?

Effective sterilization is imperative for accurate laboratory test results. Unfortunately, most microbes are not visible to the naked eye, so it’s necessary to keep the laboratory equipment and overall environment free of them through sterilization.

These are the six most common laboratory sterilization methods.

  1. Wet Heat (Autoclaving) — Autoclaving is the first choice for sterilization. This process uses pressurized steam to heat the material being sterilized. The intense heat in the presence of water kills microbes by hydrolysis and coagulation of cellular proteins. How does it work? Pressurized steam holds seven times more heat than water at the same temperature. This heat is freed when it makes contact with the cooler surface of the material being sterilized. This process allows rapid heat delivery, and the heat can penetrate dense materials. Autoclaving is very effective in killing microbes, spores, and viruses. However, for some viruses, incubation and high heat may be necessary.
  2. Dry Heat (Flaming, Baking) — Without the water/steam of autoclaving, you have dry heat, another sterilization option. Where autoclaving kills bugs through hydrolysis, baking kills them by oxidation of their cellular components. This method requires higher temperatures. For example, autoclaving normally only requires 15 minutes at 121°C, whereas baking would need a temperature of 40 degrees hotter for the same time.
  3. Filtration — You don’t need heat to remove the microbes from a solution if you use filtration. In this method of sterilization, the medical laboratory technician passes the solution through a filter with a pore diameter that is too small for the microbes to pass through. The preferred method of filtration is using membrane filters made from cellulose esters. To effectively remove bacteria, the membrane filters typically need an average pore diameter of 0.2um. However, viruses and phages can pass through filters, so if there is a possibility of either in the sample, you shouldn’t use the filtration method.
  4. Solvents — Ethanol and isopropanol are two common solvents used as disinfectants. They work by denaturing proteins in the process of dilution in water. Solvents are good at killing microbes, but they do not affect spores.
  5. Radiation — The use of x-rays, gamma rays, and ultraviolet radiation are forms of electromagnetic radiation used for sterilization. Radiation sterilization works by damaging contaminants’ DNA. UV radiation is considered the safest form of this sterilization method, but it is only effective in the small area around the lamp delivering the light. For large-scale cold sterilization of plastic items such as syringes, x-rays and gamma rays are very effective. However, to safety concerns, their use is limited.
  6. Gas Sterilization — When medical laboratory technicians deal with equipment sensitive to heat and moisture (eliminating autoclaving and possibly dry heat as an option), they can still sterilize equipment with ethylene oxide, also known as gas sterilization, which works by preventing cell metabolism and replication through alkylation.

However, there are problems using ethylene oxide for sterilization. It is highly toxic and isn’t often used in a laboratory setting. Medical devices made from certain plastics, metals, or glass or with multiple layers of packaging or hard-to-reach places (like catheters and stents) are likely to be sterilized with ethylene oxide.

The word tips in wooden block letters

What Are Some Tips for Maintaining a Clean Laboratory?

Cleaning and sterilizing laboratory equipment is essential to a medical laboratory technician’s job. Every laboratory has its processes and protocols, but these four steps should always be followed:

  1. Practice regular cleaning procedures— Cleaning the laboratory equipment daily may seem obvious, but it isn’t always done. All equipment should be wiped down at the beginning and end of every day. Deep cleaning should be done weekly.
  2. Follow regular maintenance— Medical laboratories are usually private enterprises, and costs are considered. But routine maintenance for laboratory equipment, such as calibration, repairs, and refurbishment, is not a cost but a necessity for accurate testing. Adherence to these schedules often falls on the medical laboratory technician.
  3. Sterilize used tools— One or several of the six sterilization methods described above need to be done whenever equipment or tools are used. Different methods fit different equipment, so choose the correct sterilization option.
  4. Maintain an inventory — In medium- and large-sized labs, a number of tests are run daily. The laboratory must keep an accurate inventory and expiration dates. This will eliminate the possibility of using contaminated or expired items for tests.

Ready to Become a Medical Laboratory Technician?

As a medical laboratory technician, you’ll play an essential part in patient health, helping doctors and surgeons diagnose patients’ health problems. You’ll test bodily fluid samples on various laboratory equipment and be responsible for ensuring that equipment is sterilized to help ensure reliable testing.

At Brookline College, we offer an accelerated medical lab technician program where you can earn the necessary Associate of Applied Science degree in as little as 64 weeks. There is no better time than now to get started on your new career as a medical laboratory technician.

Learn more information on medical laboratory technician coursework and our other medical programs at Brookline College.