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Ergonomics in the Laboratory

Whether you plan to work in a research lab for one semester or throughout your career, there are ways to protect yourself from ergonomic hazards common in laboratory settings. 

Don’t wait until your body tells you it’s too late! The guidelines and ideas on this website are fairly simple to implement, and by incorporating them into your daily life, you can help avoid the aches, pains and sometimes injuries that poor ergonomics can cause.

Laboratory researchers are at risk for developing cumulative trauma injuries because of the repetitive nature of pipetting, use of small hand held tools, opening and closing vial caps, prolonged awkward postures at a microscope, laboratory hood or biological safety cabinet, and a variety of other laboratory tasks. The cumulative concept is based on the theory that each repetition of an activity produces some trauma or wear and tear on the tissues and joints of the body.These injuries occur gradually over time.

Common ergonomic risk factors include:

  • Repetition—performing the same motion over and over again.
  • Awkward Body Postures—sustained holding of a bent position of the neck, back, hands/wrists, arms raised above shoulder level or arms extended out in front of the body.
  • Force—physical exertion or pressure applied to any part of the body while working, such as lifting, pushing, pulling, gripping or pinching equipment or tools.
  • Contact Stress—pressure on soft tissues of the body, such as the soft part of the palm, wrist or the sides of fingers by tools and sharp edges.
  • Extreme Temperatures—cold air temperatures (55°F and lower) may cause loss of dexterity proportional to exposure time.

Common symptoms of cumulative trauma injuries include:

  • Pain
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Stiffness or cramping
  • Inability to hold objects or loss of grip strength

Symptoms that go away overnight are usually a sign of fatigue. Symptoms that are continuous and don’t go away overnight may indicate a serious problem. Those experiencing such symptoms should seek medical attention. Cumulative trauma injuries are easier to treat in their early stages. Ignoring symptoms can lead to chronic or serious injury.

It is important to plan experiments in such a way to avoid prolonged pipetting, microscope, laboratory hood, and biological safety cabinet work. 

If you have any concerns about your laboratory work station, please contact EH&S.

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