Ergonomics is a safety topic that gets little respect in the laboratory, but it can become very important over time. The effects of poor ergonomics are cumulative, and they can appear suddenly. When they arise, the pain and treatment are often difficult, and as people age, healing is slower as well. Because the consequences of repetitive motion injuries are slow to appear, it can be a challenge to raise concerns and create solutions regarding ergonomics. Education and action today can prevent a great deal of future injuries and staff shortages.
There are several areas in the lab where a focus on ergonomics can create benefits, and creating healthy movement and comfort does not need to be expensive or difficult. Laboratory workstations have a primary and secondary work zone. Keep the most frequently used objects in the primary zone (within 18 inches of reach) and less frequently used in the secondary zone (within three feet). Every employee is a different size. Teach staff to take a minute before beginning work to adjust the chair and other work items to make the workstation more comfortable. Eliminate clutter beneath the workstation to allows room to stand or sit allowing for foot and leg comfort.
Chairs should have 4-way and preferably 6-way adjustability and come in a variety of sizes to fit the employees who work in the lab. Chairs should have five legs with casters that are appropriate for the surface being used (e.g.: hard casters on carpet and soft casters on tile). The backrest should flex between 90 and 113 degrees with arm rests removed on chairs in the technical area to allow the chair to get closer to the benchtop.
The tops of computer monitors should be at eye level. Since many employees may use the same monitor, having it on a movable arm will help each user move the monitor to an acceptable level. Any glare on the monitor screen can be reduced with a glare screen or by reducing the light in the department. Keyboards should lay flat to allow the hands and wrist to work in a neutral position and the arms to work at a 90 degree level for comfort.
When using a centrifuge, stand directly in front and work over the top when loading and unloading, and use two hands to close the lid. Centrifuges should be placed low enough so that employees can see into the body of the machine easily. Place antifatigue mats in front of laboratory equipment that requires standing for long periods of time. These mats relieve lower back and leg discomfort. When bending and lifting, employees should lift using their thighs and not the back. Teach staff to hold objects close to the body when lifting. Never lift more than 50 pounds without assistance from other employees or an assistive device such as a hand truck.
Capping and uncapping tubes for an extended period, phlebotomy, and transcription are laboratory tasks that require the use of the same muscle groups in the hands. When working in these areas, it is important to vary the tasks every 2-3 hours per day and take mini-breaks to stretch fingers and arms in order to prevent carpal tunnel issues.
Breaks are an important part of overall ergonomic health. It is better to take a five minute break every hour than to take a 15 minute break every four hours. It is especially important if you are using a microscope or a computer for an extended period of time. Remember the 20-20-20 rule: Every 20 minutes look up to focus on something 20 feet away and blink your eyes 20 times. This will allow you to moisturize your eyes and give them a short rest. This can help to prevent ergonomics issues such as Computer Vision Syndrome which can result in neck pain, vision problems, and headaches.
Ergonomics safety is important on all areas of the laboratory, and the best way to ensure good work practices is to perform an ergonomics assessment. An ergonomic assessment should include identifying physical work activities or conditions of the job that are associated with work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and how to eliminate these hazards. For additional information, review the Occupational Safety and Health (OSHA) laboratory ergonomics fact sheet (https://www.osha.gov/sites/default/files/publications/OSHAfactsheet-laboratory-safety-ergonomics.pdf).
Over one third of all U.S. worker injuries are related to MSDs caused by poor ergonomics. Laboratory employees are valuable resources, now more than ever, and preventing time away from work, surgeries and medical bills for laboratorians should be a priority. The results of poor ergonomic practices in the lab do not show up today, but they will have effects tomorrow if we don’t pay attention to them. Those effects can be career-altering, career-ending, and they can interfere with the happy and healthy retirement that we all want to enjoy. Take steps today to prevent that future- provide training, raise awareness, and perform ergonomics assessments to make sure staff remains comfortable and healthy for all of their tomorrows.
–Dan Scungio, MT(ASCP), SLS, CQA (ASQ) has over 25 years experience as a certified medical technologist. Today he is the Laboratory Safety Officer for Sentara Healthcare, a system of seven hospitals and over 20 laboratories and draw sites in the Tidewater area of Virginia. He is also known as Dan the Lab Safety Man, a lab safety consultant, educator, and trainer.