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Is safety training truly safe without ergonomics?

Authors: Michael Nguyen-Truong, Courtney Doherty

The New York Times recently revealed that many lab technicians are suffering repetitive-use injuries from working for many hours with tubes and pipettes. These reports serve as a clear example of how such routine work in the lab can lead to bodily injuries. We’re both student researchers who work together in a cardiovascular biomechanics lab and we—along with many other scientists—have encountered similar risks in our own wet lab experiments. For example, pipetting puts us researchers at high risk for carpal tunnel syndrome: the countless repetitive motions of pushing a plunger down with the thumb to withdraw or dispense liquid can lead to soreness in the hands, wrists, and/or arms. For us specifically, we each have thus dropped the pipette or pressed the plunger down incorrectly (as there are two stops) during operation, which has led to measurement error and an interruption in the cadence of the experiment. However, training on how to prevent such an issue is rarely provided (it has never been in our experience) and most researchers will just brush off the temporary pain due to not having the equipment or knowledge of other alternatives.

Other parts of the body are at risk of injury as well. Soreness in the lower back and neck are common after hours of running experiments on a lab bench at an improper height. With each of us being taller than the average adult height in the U.S. (M.N.T., male, and C.D., female), we each find ourselves hunching and manifesting rounded shoulders when using workstations that are often too low. While good posture is something to constantly be reminded of, it would be beneficial for our and all researchers’ long term musculoskeletal health to have benches and equipment that would be adjustable to accommodate a wide range of heights and physiques.

It would also help to know about recommendations for taking breaks at certain time intervals to prevent bodily strain and mental fatigue. We each have seen our tasks take twice as long simply because we did not schedule in breaks (which include snacks/meals!), causing each of us to be less efficient and have poor critical thinking due to an exhausted mind (or feeling ‘hangry’—can anyone relate?). C.D. has experienced this when spending hours working to troubleshoot an issue during data analysis. However, after taking time to let her mind relax and then returning to the problem, she was able to more creatively approach the issue and find a solution.

Even for researchers that may be focused on computational work, there are other hazards that are often forgotten, such as slumping in front of the screen or too much blue light exposure – especially now many of us are working far away from the office, in chairs not designed for spending the day working in.

We learned about the 20-20-20 rule for digital screen usage previously, where for every 20 minutes of screen time, one should shift their eyes to focus on something 20 feet away for 20 seconds. However, we never received formal lab training on it. To reduce eye strain, such training would be beneficial for all researchers, regardless of the type of lab work they do.

Many researchers use microscopes that require bending the neck or head down which can cause neck and back issues, so it is important to adjust the microscope or chair height to allow the user to have an upright posture during operation. For M.N.T. previously, he would easily spend several hours on a stool with no back support when performing cell culture on scaffolds inside a biosafety cabinet. This meant that he would be hunching within 30 minutes of starting and become easily fatigued. After switching to a chair with a backrest to support an upright posture, he was able to work more efficiently. Therefore, for those that work in a biosafety cabinet, it is important to use a chair with back support and to take frequent breaks for the sake of reducing contact forces from the front edge of the cabinet onto the forearms and wrists. Turning ergonomics practices into regular habits can help prevent chronic pain and both mental and physical burnout.

Science is challenging enough; it compels us researchers to work hard, sometimes engrossing us so much that we forget about our own health. It is time that we include ergonomics—which has been too long overlooked but brought to light by the current pandemic—as a part of mandatory safety training for researchers to ensure that physical and mental health are not sacrificed for the sake of our work.        

Photo credit: Pexels using the CC0 license

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