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The science of safety | Promoting ergonomic practices in the lab

By LaNiesha Littleton

Repetitive manual tasks are common in many laboratories, making the risk of repetitive strain injuries and musculoskeletal disorders a significant concern for businesses and employees alike. This article highlights the importance of injury prevention through expert support and ergonomic solutions, and explores how the workplace health and safety landscape is now being shaped.

Background

Repetitive strain injuries (RSIs) and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) were estimated to make up around 28% of all occupational injuries in the US in 2020, amounting to approximately US$16.5 billion in direct compensation costs to workers in the USA [1]. In the same year, the global age-standardized prevalence of MSDs was calculated to be 47.4% [2]. Some of the most common injuries include carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, tenosynovitis and tennis elbow, with initial symptoms including pain, stiffness, numbness, fatigue and cramps in the muscles or joints. These conditions are preventable but they are often no longer curable once they have reached an advanced stage. As a result, MSDs can become gradually worse over time, potentially resulting in a long-term disability. Even when the damage is reversible and an individual is receiving proper medical care and adequate rest, it can take a long time to recover from a severe RSI and the risk of recurrence is high, underscoring the importance of prevention and early intervention.

Scientists and researchers across biotechnology, pharmaceutical, academic and clinical sectors are exposed to unique workplace risk factors for RSIs and MSDs. This is due to the repetitive nature, awkward postures and constant manual force associated with laboratory work. In fact, there’s a significant increase in the risk of developing MSDs when pipetting for more than 300 hours a year [3]. This means that, for those working between 180 and 200 days a year, pipetting for just 1–2 hours a day results in an increased risk of injury. Automated liquid handling is certainly becoming more widespread, helping to cut down the amount of time lab users spend pipetting by hand. However, manually pipetting for more than 2 hours in a stretch is still common, and this is frequently accompanied by several hours of sitting at a computer each day – another ergonomic hazard.

Injuries in the lab not only have an impact on a personal level; they can also negatively affect business productivity and profitability through reduced working ability, frequent staff absences, and lower morale and retention rates [4]. This highlights the importance of training lab users how to best perform their tasks to prevent potential injuries in both the short and long term. It’s also crucial to use the right instruments and platforms – equipment that has been designed with ergonomics and usability in mind – to reduce the force and effort required to carry out routine operations.

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Proactive prevention of workplace injuries when pipetting

There are many simple ways to minimize common RSIs that may occur as a result of repetitive motions, poor posture or the need for excessive manual force when pipetting on a daily basis. These include taking frequent breaks to stretch and move around to split up longer periods of pipetting when possible. It’s also a good idea to keep all labware close to the operator, and to maintain a good posture, where the head is directly above the shoulders, and the shoulders are in line with the hips. In addition, workers should not fully extend the elbow while pipetting, and should sit in the middle of their chair or stool with their back straight and feet flat on the floor or a footrest at the correct height. In terms of reducing the manual force needed to operate pipettes, it’s beneficial to select a manual pipette with minimal plunger force and stroke distance, as well as a finger hook and rotatable handles. Handheld pipettes should also allow for easy volume changes and enable the user to keep their wrist in a neutral position. Operators should not hold the pipette too tightly, and will benefit from pipette tips that require the lowest possible attachment and ejection forces.

Following these useful tips will no doubt help to reduce the instances of RSIs and MSDs in the lab, but it can often be hard to know exactly what is causing an employee’s pain or discomfort, and it may be even harder to implement and maintain good ergonomic practices consistently across an entire workforce. On top of this, in many countries, employers are legally obliged to formally evaluate RSI risk by undertaking a Risk Assessment Test [5], and so frequently require professional support from external experts to fulfil these official requirements.

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Hours of manual pipetting can lead to repetitive strain injury (Adobe Stock)

Partnering with health and safety experts

iHEALTH 360 – comprising the largest network of ergonomic experts and musculoskeletal health providers – leverages industry leading technologies to protect employee health in the workplace. The company offers scalable solutions and guidance to effectively meet the needs of employers and employees, from hire to retire. Founded in 2020, this enterprise helps employers hire more effectively, avoid workplace injuries, and get injured employees back to work safely and efficiently. The company serves a broad range of firms spanning the life sciences, industrial, and healthcare sectors, and in particular has a wealth of experience in the pharmaceutical sector. Over the last 4 years, its support has helped its clients to achieve an average of a 55% reduction in the USA Occupational Safety and Health Administration’s recordables, a 65% reduction in workers’ compensation costs and a 25% improvement in productivity.

Adopting ergonomic pipetting instruments

iHEALTH 360 has been advocating INTEGRA Biosciences as a model brand when engaging, educating and empowering its clients in the scientific community. Its pipetting solutions tick all the boxes regarding ergonomics and ease of use and embody the principles of human-centric design. INTEGRA’s manual pipettes have quick-set dials to adjust volume, a comfortable grip that contours to the human hand, and a balanced weight distribution, as well as low pipetting forces and easy tip ejection – all reducing strain on the user’s hands. The company also provides electronically adjustable tip spacing pipettes, as well as a range of benchtop multichannel pipettes and pipetting robots for workflow automation, eliminating repetitive manual tasks and solving posture issues associated with extended periods of pipetting by hand.

Prioritizing employee safety and well-being

The number and severity of RSIs and MSDs resulting from repetitive actions, poor posture and excessive manual force can be substantially reduced by applying ergonomic principles and using specially designed instrumentation. Investing in employee health by creating a more pleasant working environment ultimately has knock-on benefits for biotechnology and pharmaceutical businesses, as well as clinical and academic labs, fostering company growth and success in the long run.

For further information visit iHEALTH360 (https://ihealth360.org/).

The author

LaNiesha Littleton M.S. OTR/L, CEAS III, MBA
iHEALTH 360, San Mateo, California 94403, USA

Email: info@iHealth360.org

References

1. Liberty Mutual Workplace Safety Index: Annual report from Risk Control Services. Liberty Mutual Insurance 2023 (https://business.libertymutual.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/07/WSI_1000_2023.pdf).
2. Gill TK, Mittinty MM, March LM et al. Global, regional, and national burden of other musculoskeletal disorders, 1990–2020, and projections to 2050: a systematic analysis of the Global Burden of Disease Study 2021. Lancet Rheumatol 2023;5(11):e670–e682 (https://t.ly/WYoQ-).
3. Björksten MG, Almby B, Jansson ES. Hand and shoulder ailments among laboratory technicians using modern plunger-operated pipettes. Appl Ergon 1994;25(2):88–94 ( https://doi.org/10.1016/0003-6870(94)90069-8 ).
4. Thompson J. 4 Ways an ergonomic workstation can improve your productivity. Business.com 19 April 2024 (https://www.business.com/articles/5-ways-an-ergonomically-designed-workstation-can-improve-your-productivity/).
5. Factsheet 80. Risk assessment – roles and responsibilities. European Agency for Safety and Health at Work 2008 (https://osha.europa.eu/en/publications/factsheet-80-risk-assessment-roles-and-responsibilities).