Reducing the Incidence of Freezer Spoilage

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Reducing the Incidence of Freezer Spoilage

Members recognise the potential for freezer spoilage claims and the resulting losses, which can be extremely high. These losses can range from the spoilage of substances, loss of access to research material, which will need to be replaced over a period of time, and finally the potentially devastating loss of irreplaceable research material. These losses can cause significant delays in the completion of contract research projects and postgraduate research projects.

Examples of Freezer Spoilage Claims Received by Unimutual:

Example 1 – Changing accommodation results in zero power.

A freezer was relocated to a new position in a refurbished room. The freezer was plugged into the power point. Unfortunately, the power points in the refurbished room were not working. Over the weekend, the material in the freezer thawed and a number of samples were destroyed.

The material contained in the freezer consisted of scientific samples including clones prepared over a four-year period. Some of the material could be replaced but a significant amount of time had to be spent by the Department in rescuing cell strains and mutants. This caused a major setback in the research. Additional time was also required to produce new samples. The estimated loss was plus $10,000 with even higher cost potential.

This example highlights how easy it is to sustain a spoilage loss. Checking the power supply prior to connecting the freezer would have prevented this loss.

Example 2 – There are alarms and then there are real Alarms!

Over a weekend the compressor motor of a -20°C walk-in cold room fused. The cold room “over-temperature” alarm was not triggered due to a problem with a router unit and the temperature in the cold room rose to 45°C. Hundreds of samples within the cold room were destroyed. The material included DNA samples blood, tissue and swab samples collected over a three to four year period, samples from endangered species and genetic research material. The total cost of the loss was $170,000.

By the installation of a back to base alarm system this loss could have been avoided completely.

Example 3 – How safe are your circuit breakers?

An -80°c freezer was disconnected due to a circuit breaker being tripped. The freezer’s condition was not discovered for a number of days and the contents in the freezer had completely thawed. It is believed that the circuit breaker may have been tripped due to the use of a faulty piece of cleaning equipment. A significant number of biological samples were lost and hundreds of hours work was required to replace these samples. This resulted in a loss of $53,000.

Due to the potential of such an unexpected incident the need for monitoring by alarms becomes even more crucial.

Experience of a Member Institution

Over the period 2000 to 2003, the University of Queensland experienced in their view an unacceptable rate of freezer spoilage claims.

The causes of freezer spoilage varied, some of the causes were:

  • Power failure – loss of supply
  • Circuit breakers tripping
  • Compressor or other component failure
  • Contractor or other persons disconnecting power
  • Malicious acts

Due to this experience, the University implemented a Risk Management Strategy targeting freezers which is outlined below:

Required Monitoring and Maintenance of Freezer and Alarm Systems

  • High priority freezers must be connected to an alarm system that is monitored 24 hours per day, normally by UQ Security.
  • High priority freezers must have a periodic maintenance contract in place with a contractor approved by the University’s Property and Facilities Division.
  • The monitoring service must be provided with the names and contact details for a minimum of three School personnel.
  • The School contact personnel must have contact details for staff members who are responsible for individual freezers and will contact them if contents need to be relocated.
  • Once a year, Schools must audit the contents of all of their freezers.
  • Each School must determine if there is sufficient spare capacity in other freezers to accommodate the contents of a freezer should one fail. If not, it is recommended that a reserve freezer be purchased so that spare capacity is available in the event of an incident.
  • If a freezer is lent to a School while one of its freezers is being repaired, the repair company must include in the loan agreement an indemnity to the University for any losses arising from the use of the loan freezer.
  • High priority freezers must have signs to warn cleaners, electrical testers and others not to turn them off.

High priority freezers are defined as either ones which contains contents with a replacement value of more than $10,000 or a series of freezers on the same power circuit with a combined content replacement value of greater than $10,000 .

The University has also implemented an internal penalty and reward system for Schools following the required monitoring and maintenance system.

If the required systems are in place the deductible paid by the School is $2,500. If the required system is not in place then the deductible paid by the School is substantially higher.

$25,000 for losses over $50,000
$15,000 for losses between $20,000 and $50,000
$10,000 for losses under $20,000

Outcome Post Introduction of These Risk Management Procedures

The experience of the University of Queensland following the implementation of their freezer risk management approach is that more Schools now have monitored alarm systems on freezers and the number of claims and potential for loss has reduced significantly.

If you have any useful measures for dealing with this issue that can be relayed to other members please email to

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