A real pain in the neck: Ergonomics in the lab

New products, guide help reduce ergo hazards

 They’re peering into microscopes: their forearms resting on the sharp edge of a counter, their shoulders slumped, one hand repeatedly tapping a counter. They’re popping the tops off tubes and squeezing pipettes, repeating the motions over and over.

Ergonomic hazards in the laboratory may not be as obvious or as dangerous as those in patient handling, but they, nonetheless, lead to strain and injury. Fortunately, new equipment and resources have been developed to help hospitals and others improve the ergonomic conditions in the lab.

"Attention is making its way into the laboratory," says Debra Campbell, occupational and environmental safety officer at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center in Worcester. "In the last five years or so, you’ve seen a lot of implementation in the laboratory."

Problems in the lab may not show up in dramatic, costly workers’ compensation injuries. But those employees may be suffering with pain and discomfort that can eventually affect their work, says Valeria Shropshire, MSPH, CIH, industrial hygienist with the health and safety branch of the National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences (NIEHS) in Research Triangle Park, NC.

Ergonomic problems at the NIEHS labs may be more apparent than in a typical hospital clinical laboratory, if only because of numbers. NIEHS has about 500 lab workers. Even so, it took some urging from employees to spark the ergonomic effort, which now includes an extensive list of resources and guidelines that has been placed on-line (www.niehs.nih.gov/odhsb/ergoguid/home.htm).

The guide notes that lab workers are at risk for tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome, and other disorders affecting the hands, arms, shoulders, neck, and back.

When NIEHS began working on ergonomic solutions about five years ago, "there wasn’t much out there for laboratory ergonomics," Shropshire says. "We ended up piecing things together and coming up with this [guidance] document."

The solutions aren’t necessarily costly or complex. "It’s not hard to rectify some of these problems," says Shropshire.

Here are some simple steps to take:

• Provide ergonomics training and worksite assessments.

With some guidance, lab workers may be able to improve their own work environment, she says. Employee health professionals can adjust chairs, put padding on the lab bench, or rearrange the equipment. Since many lab workers also use computers, they may need wrist rests or keyboard trays — items that may have been purchased for clerical areas.

Shropshire uses a checklist to determine the areas that need to be addressed.

• Encourage frequent breaks.

Continuous pipetting or cell counting creates the strain of repetitive motion. "They can’t sit there and continuously pipette without taking breaks," Shropshire says. "For every 20 minutes of pipetting, you want to take at least a two- or three-minute break."

Striking the cell counter too hard also can cause unnecessary problems, she says.

• Purchase ergonomic equipment to prevent injury.

Ergonomically correct lab equipment can vary in price from a simple anti-fatigue mat (about $50) to electronic pipettes (about $400). When the lab purchases new equipment, employee health professionals can make sure the items — including microscopes and lab chairs — are designed with ergonomic features, Campbell says.

For example, lab stools should have adjustable backrests and ring stands as a footrest.

"There are a lot of nice products coming out," she says. "It’s just a matter of seeing what works for your facility."

• Identify problems before injuries occur.

When Shropshire conducted her ergonomic training for lab workers, she gave each employee a hard copy of the lab ergonomics guidebook she developed. She encourages them to contact her if they’re feeling discomfort or pain and they can’t resolve the problem with simple changes.

The benefits may not show up in dramatic reductions in workers’ compensation claims. Even in her large lab facility, Shropshire notes that she usually only has two or three significant injury claims in a three-year period.

But ergonomics can have a broader impact. In a busy clinical lab in a hospital, eliminating ergonomic problems can help reduce stress, Campbell notes.

"When the employee is more comfortable, productivity will go up," she says. "It’s also important for employees to know that they’re important enough for you to pay attention to them."