Lab ergonomics

Posture & repetition

Every task has a posture load before the work begins. The most neutral postures will have the spine's natural curves holding your load in an upright position, with elbows close to your sides and your head on top. Whenever your head hangs forward of your vertical axis, this becomes a 4-6Kg load for muscle sets in your upper back, and if the whole body leans forward, the lower back is loaded. Any work will be an additional muscle load. Where tasks do not allow for a neutral posture, the blocks of time on task must be closely managed. This will be particularly important for the constrained postures used for:

  • loading vertical gels
  • weighing samples
  • extractions
  • extended microtome use
  • tissue culture
  • microscopy
  • laptop use.

You were designed to move, so use every opportunity to break a static posture with a WRIGGLE - WRIGGLE - WRIGGLE approach. This helps stop slumping into stressful postures and turns on those balancing involuntary muscles which help give you core strength, just as work on a Swiss ball would do. Stand up and move about at least every 20 minutes to keep circulation going, stretch your body and your eye focal length.

High repetitions of mechanical actions will require rest and recovery time between work blocks. This will be critical if significant force and travel is required, such as the thumb travel and pressure used to eject tips on older pipettes. The same principle applies to keying and data entry. It is important that you understand what is a safe repetition and postural loading associated with your lab tasks. Injury rates are directly proportional to the amount of sustained repetition.

How will you know that you are operating in the conservative zone rather than the at-risk or danger zone? Don't be afraid to ask senior lab staff who know the work.

Someone who knows the work must know how much is too much

Is your work intensity sustainable?  

There is no business case for setting an unsustainable load, and when we know the risks, we need to plan so that work is done safely.Sustainability rewards and protects everyone but it always needs planning even if you are not a supervisor.

NO PLAN = NO CONTROL.

Set yourself safe limits and stick to them. Remember you will be more at risk:

  • after returning from extended leave
  • after maternity leave or
  • when changing to new repetitive tasks.

Lab work station set-ups

The more variable the workstation, the less variable your body will need to be.

Winder-adjustable work surfaces help minimise your postural load. You need to be seated as close to the work as possible. Use a foot stool rather than the ring on a lab stool for extended tasks. Microscopes MAY have adjustable heads and long eyepieces to allow for a neutral body posture. If not, the blocks of time must be limited because of the constant load to your neck and back.

PC machines linked to instrumentation should be set up so that users do not become the variable. A risk assessment by senior lab staff should determine the intensity and duration of PC work at the station. They know the work and should determine a safe plan for use, which could include the type of chair used, mouse and keyboard options and strict time management for users. If laptops are used in the lab, the risks to users are very significant unless variables such as racks and plug-in mice and keyboards are used.

Planning is control

It is easy to view workload as something that comes down from above and cannot be changed, especially if you are not a supervisor. Even so, careful work scheduling with your supervisor and within your own diary allows you to take more control by:

  • setting and revising priorities for due dates
  • planning the most ergonomic equipment you will need
  • controlling postural loads
  • scheduling rest breaks and recovery time for high intensity tasks and
  • making changes to avoid high risk periods of work.

Everyone likes to have control of their own work as this affects morale and our task resilience.  Each person in the lab can plan for control. 

Safest response to overuse symptoms

Overuse injuries are constantly underestimated but can easily be with you for life.  Many staff try to cope on their own and may not even mention an injury to supervisors or notify online to the Injury Management Branch. Under the Work Health Safety Act you have a duty to notify an injury to your supervisor as it occurs. If you are new to a job, you have the same duty to tell your new supervisor of an existing injury which work tasks may aggravate.

A lot has already happened by the time you feel the pain of an overuse injury. In particular you need to be aware of warning signs such as:

  • tingling or numbness
  • dull aches
  • swelling and stiffness
  • weakness and reduced stamina on task and
  • self-massage to address discomfort.

Once your body has warned of the problem, rest breaks from intense repetitive actions and recovery time will be critical. This is where a CONSERVATIVE plan is essential. You must take seriously medical advice on how to work and rest.

Outside the work environment you should consider how to maintain your strength and flexibility. In other words, how will I keep a safe working range in which I can operate and be less vulnerable to injuries?