Repetition. It’s the basis of science—repeating observations, procedures, and protocols to collect a dataset. Although that repetition builds the basis of science, making the same movements over and over across months and years can tear down the well-being of a lab’s personnel. Like a good experiment, it takes planning to put good ergonomic practices in place, fitting the tasks to the personnel.
Leading organizations recognize the battle that scientists face with ergonomics. “From administrative personnel to research personnel, ergonomics plays an important role in preventing injury and illness,” notes the ‘U.S. National Institutes of Health Ergonomics Program 2018.
The OSHA Fact Sheet, “Laboratory Safety Ergonomics for the Prevention of Musculoskeletal Disorders,” adds: “Employers should recognize that laboratory workers are at risk for repetitive motion injuries during routine laboratory procedures such as pipetting, working at microscopes, operating microtomes, using cell counters, and keyboarding at computer workstations.” As the OSHA document points out: “Employers can minimize occupational injuries and simultaneously improve worker comfort, productivity, and job satisfaction by becoming familiar with ways to control laboratory ergonomics-related risk factors.”
The question is: What are the biggest risks?
When asked about the most common ergonomic dangers in labs, Catherine Trask—Canada Research Chair in Ergonomics and Musculoskeletal Health and associate professor at the Canadian Centre for Health and Safety in Agriculture at the University of Saskatchewan—says, “The ergonomic hazards can vary a lot between facilities, and even between workers.”
So getting ergonomics right takes a personal touch. “Ergonomics involves finding a good fit between the worker and their environment and tools,” Trask explains. “So, what causes problems for some workers might not be a problem for another.” As an example, she describes a shorter lab worker standing on tip toes to reach a high shelf and a tall technician stooping at a workbench or equipment stand. She adds, “Lab tasks and setups can vary a lot between institutions based on the nature of the studies, facility age, and methodologies used.”
Lab benches can make it easy or nearly impossible to get in a comfortable working position. “One ergonomic hazard I have seen a lot happens when adding a workstation at a bench that doesn’t have a cut-out for a seated worker, so the worker can’t pull their chair in under the workbench,” Trask says. “This means the worker has to lean their back forward and reach out their arms in order to do work on the workbench surface.”
Timing really matters in ergonomics, and scientists shouldn’t underestimate that effect. As Trask says, “Two minutes of awkward posture might not seem like a big problem, but the effects accumulate over days and weeks.” In the case of a bench with no cut-out, Trask offers some simple solutions, including “removing drawers to make space or removing—or even opening—cupboard doors so that folks can tuck their legs under the workstation.”
So, a little creativity can go a long way in terms of lab comfort. It’s not usually possible to completely remodel a lab to handle every ergonomic issue. But some little fixes can make life easier in any lab.
The OSHA Fact Sheet provides a quick list of ergonomic tips. We’ve known one of them since at least 1972, when the Eagles sang, “Take it Easy.” Put more professionally, the OSHA guide recommends training “workers to keep arms and hands relaxed.”
Sometimes, ergonomic hazards in a lab would not be missed by many new parents. For example, OSHA encourages lab personnel to “soften sharp edges on work surfaces with padding.”
Even choosing the right gloves makes a difference—OSHA recommends thin and flexible ones that fit right. “Ill-fitting and poorly designed gloves,” the OSHA Fact Sheet notes, “increase pinch and grip forces when working.”
This guide goes on to give tips for pipetting, using a microscope, and more, including computer use. As someone with decades of extensive computer use, I know a lot about what can go wrong, and I set up my workspace with particular precision. Here, too, some personal preferences will come into play. For example, OSHA recommends situating the monitor “so the top of the screen is approximately at eye level. This allows the eyes to gravitate naturally toward the center of the screen.” For me, on the other hand, I like the top of my monitor to be even with the top of my head. The best setup, though, will depend on the person and the equipment, especially the size of the monitor. Other personal factors can impact the best setup. “Eyeglasses make a big difference here,” Trask says. “Folks with bifocals nearly always have to position their screens very low so they don’t crane their necks to read through the tops of their glasses.”
One thing about computer use where OSHA and I really agree is a footrest. As OSHA says, this allows you to “change leg positions throughout the day.” It might not seem like much, but a footrest makes a big difference—one that extends far beyond the toes.
For large or small ergonomic improvements, it’s worth the effort. “Good ergonomics has been related to better productivity and work quality, such as fewer mistakes,” Trask says. “So, even if the lab updates take a bit of time and money, it is good business to facilitate healthy posture.”
Mike May is a freelance writer and editor living in Texas. He can be reached at [email protected]