Sometimes when I am talking about lab safety and the topic turns to ergonomics, I get an unusual reaction from the audience- laughter. It surprises me because while a great many lab leaders a have the ability to step back and look at the bigger picture, they often won’t see it when considering ergonomics safety. I’m not sure if that is because the picture is just too big- meaning the effects of bad ergonomics aren’t seen for many years- or if there are just too many other safety issues facing the lab that ergonomics must take a back seat. Either way, dealing with laboratory ergonomics is important, and it can be managed easily with the rest of the lab safety program.
Way back in 2001, the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) put into place the first national Ergonomics Standard. Almost immediately, the law was criticized as being too complex and expensive for many employers. Within three months, Congress repealed the law and prevented OSHA from putting forth another that was “substantially the same” as the first. One year later OSHA announced its “Comprehensive Plan to reduce MSDs (Musculoskeletal Disorders) in the Workplace.” This was not a standard or a regulation, but rather a guideline for employers. Since then some state OSHA bodies have tried to pass ergonomics standards, but so far only California has been successful.
Other laboratory agencies have addressed this vital safety topic even without backing by the federal government. These agencies have understood the need for ergonomics to be part of a safety program. The Clinical and Laboratory Standards Institute (CLSI) discusses laboratory ergonomics in its Clinical Laboratory Safety document (GP-17). The College of American Pathologists (CAP) has a regulation in the Laboratory General checklist that requires a “documented ergonomics program to prevent musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in the workplace through prevention and engineering controls.” The wording for this standard was derived from CLSI’s guidance.
A documented ergonomics program should include written policies and procedures instructing staff how to incorporate good ergonomics practices in their workday. The policies may be specific to include information about proper lifting, work bench set-up, microscope use, and even computer work station specifics. Good ergonomics practices are necessary in all areas of the lab and for most processes. The important thing for staff to remember is to not repeat any one activity for extended periods of time. If you work at a microscope all day, be sure to take a break at least every twenty minutes. If you stand in one place for a long time, shift your weight from side to side or place one foot on a foot rest to ease the stress on your back muscles. Using a pipette or a microtome can be stressful on the body as well as performing venipuncture procedures. Take breaks from these tasks periodically to perform other functions.
Encourage frequent work stretches which can help keep employees from developing muscle strain from repetitive work. There are many simple stretches that can be done in the workplace, and some can be done while standing or even when sitting. Neck rolls, arm stretches, pointing feet and legs, and simple bending are all things that can and should be done to help the body stay in balance with the potential stresses of everyday work in the laboratory.
I define ergonomics as the science of adapting the job and the equipment and the human to each other for optimal safety and efficiency. The effects of poor ergonomics may not be seen for a long time, but those effects can be costly and painful. That is not how anyone wants to spend their retirement years, so it is a good idea to always create awareness about proper ergonomics practices often.