Laboratories are common in Canada, reaching from the viniculture industry to universities, pharmaceutical and petro chemical sectors. For lab techs, there are many occupational hazards, including exposure to hazardous, corrosive chemicals, noxious fumes, infectious microbes and even radiation.
There are also many health and safety regulations in Canada to protect these workers. However, some risks of working in a lab remain, and they may not be as obvious. They include the potential for musculoskeletal injury to the hand, wrist, arm, shoulder and neck due to the high volume and frequency of manual tasks that lab techs complete in their daily work.
Lifting, sorting samples, computer and bench work are among the many manual tasks that occur in the lab. These manual tasks, which can be repetitive in nature over extended periods of time, put lab techs at a high risk for musculoskeletal injury.
WorksafeBC defines a musculoskeletal injury as an injury (including a sprain, strain, or inflammation) or disorder of the muscles, tendons, ligaments, joints, nerves, blood vessels, or related soft tissues that may be caused or aggravated by work. According to the Canadian Centre for Occupational Health and Safety, work-related musculoskeletal injuries (disorders) can happen from arm and hand movements such as bending, straightening, gripping, holding, twisting, clenching and reaching, all of which are common requirements for lab work.
These movements on their own will not cause an injury. What makes them harmful in the lab environment is when they are continually repeated, in a forceful manner (pinching or gripping hard); lead to awkward body positions; and are completed quickly with minimal breaks.
Pipettes, which are used to transport a measured volume of liquid from one container to the next, are a major tool in the modern lab. There are various designs of pipettes for different uses and levels of accuracy and precision.
Lab techs typically complete many tasks repetitive tasks using pipettes over long periods of time. The continual motion, combined with other tasks such as sorting vials and computer use, can create a risk for injury to the hand, wrist, arm, shoulder, and neck area.
In a Swedish study, “Hand and shoulder ailments amoung laboratory technicians using modern plunger-operated pipettes,” published in Applied Ergonomics, researchers found that lab techs working with pipettes had twice the prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders of the hand compared to the general population. Furthermore, this study found that pipetting more than 300 hours per year (approximately one to two hours per day) put lab techs at an increased risk for musculoskeletal injury to the hand and shoulder.
While there are many risk factors for injury from many of the tasks completed in the lab, there are opportunities to reduce these risks and work pain-free, including the following three steps.
Choose the right pipette
There are many different pipettes available, including electronic and multi-channel options, that all are specialized to different areas of the lab. Select a pipette based on the physical properties of the sample that is being analyzed, type of analysis that needs to be done, and amount of liquid that needs to be transferred. While there are many benefits to an electronic pipette compared to a manual pipette (less hand and thumb force), it’s important to consider the increased weight and the hand fit.
Choose the right chair
The right fit of chair can support the low back and the rest of the upper body during prolonged periods of sitting. It is important that the chair is height-adjustable to maintain a 90-degree angle at the thighs and that the feet can either be placed flat on the floor or rested on a foot rest or rail. The chair should also have armrests to support the arms and upper body when pipetting. This will reduce the amount of work that the upper body and neck must do to support the body when completing tasks.
Don’t forget to take breaks
The muscles in the hands, arms, shoulders, and neck need breaks throughout the day to allow them to recover from the stresses of repetitive work such as pipetting. Just like a bodybuilder that completes repetitions and then takes a rest, lab techs need rest periods to let the body recover. This can include splitting up manual repetitive tasks through the day or taking breaks during extended periods of work.
Lab work can be highly repetitive, making musculoskeletal injuries of the hands, wrist, arms, shoulders, and neck highly prevalent. It is important to understand the risk factors for musculoskeletal injury to the body and how the work environment and tools can be modified to reduce these risks.
This can include choosing the right pipette for the job, having a chair that supports the body and maintaining good posture, and breaking up the work day during long periods of pipetting or other repetitive tasks. Breaks give the body a chance to rest and not overload the muscles, which can cause discomfort and even injury.
In any work environment, it’s important to understand the body and, if there is continual discomfort when performing specific tasks, what parts of the job are causing discomfort. By determining what types of tasks are causing discomfort or pain, changes can be made to reduce risk factors for injury and let workers focus on the task and not pain.
Aaron Miller is a Canadian Certified Professional Ergonomist (CCPE) and an ergonomic consultant based in Kelowna, B.C. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.