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16.15 Ergonomics

Many lab tasks such as looking through microscopes, working in exhaust hoods, pipetting, and continuously looking down for bench tasks require both significant repetitive movements and sustained awkward posturing. Often there is no leg room when sitting at counters or hoods, which causes more leaning and reaching. Although the essential job tasks probably cannot change, you can develop important personal strategies that can improve comfort and health. There may also be equipment changes you can make.

The section below outlines some steps you can take to reduce your risk for injury from this demanding work. Links to product ideas and additional related information are provided. Product links do not imply endorsement. Consider a free ergonomic evaluation of your specific environment (Cornell Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention Program)—additional information below) before purchasing equipment.

Seating

  • Take the time to adjust the seat depth and chair back height and tilt in order to maximize individual back support. Consider a slightly reclined position to promote better support. 
  • Try using chairs “backward”, supporting the torso when leaning forward to do bench/hood/microscope work, as a means for changing positions throughout the day. 
  • Make sure the feet reach the floor, foot ring or separate footrest comfortably. The stabilization of both feet makes it easier to sit back in a supported manner. Some lab chairs have adjustable foot rings—consider this feature when buying new chairs. For lower surfaces use office-style footrests. NeXtep are adjustable rests that attach to the cylinder of lab stools. Another style of freestanding rest with extended height adjustment is by Safco or similar. 
  • Seat height—be sure lab chairs have adequate height adjustment. Extended cylinder heights (32 inch) may provide additional adjustment that will help employees comfortably reach/perform work at counter height. 
  • Pull your torso close to the work surface and then sit back. This technique will help avoid ‘perching’ on the edge of the chair. 
  • Select benches where there is leg room under the surface.

Extended Standing

Standing all day for bench work, particularly on concrete/tile flooring, is difficult. The body requires time to recover from these demands, even within a given shift.Recommendations to minimize risks from extended standing include:

  • Microbreaks--allow time (as little as 30 seconds - 1 minute every 20 minute) and a chair/stool so spinal structures and joints can recover from extended standing.
  • Consider anti-fatigue matting in areas where practical.
  • Proper footwear is important and using a foam/gel insole can also reduce fatigue. Remember, they need to be replaced before they appear worn out.
  • Provide a footrest so you can elevate one foot, then the other. This will reduce static fatigue. If safe/appropriate, try opening cabinets to create a footrest.

Microscope Station

  • Be cognizant of neutral postures while working. Adjust the chair or microscope as needed to maintain an upright head position. Elevate, tilt or move the microscope closer to the edge of the counter to avoid bending your neck.
  • Avoid leaning on the hard edges on the table - consider padding the front lip of microscope table (AliEdge or similar) or using forearm pads. A simple, versatile solution is a variety of foam pads, like Wedge-Ease.  Be sure these supports do not cause awkward wrist postures when focusing/adjusting the stage. 
  • Keep scopes repaired and clean. 
  • Spread microscope work throughout the day and between several people, if possible. 
  • Observe seating adjustment and support techniques.

Additional resources can be found at Nikon Microscopy U and UC Berkeley.

Pipetting

Below are some general guidelines to reduce the physical impact of pipetting.

  • Sit or stand close to your work at bench. If safe/appropriate, try opening cabinets to create legroom.
  • Work at appropriate heights to minimize twisting of the neck and torso. Elevate your chair rather than reaching up to pipette. 
  • Alternate or use both hands to pipette. 
  • Select a lightweight pipette sized for your hand. Hold the pipette with a relaxed grip and use minimal pressure while pipetting. 
  • Avoid standing or sitting for long periods. Alternating between sitting and standing provides relief and recovery time for fatigued body structures.  Additional resources can be found at UCLA, UC Berkeley

Hood Work

  • Observe seating recommendations to promote supported postures.
  • Position work supplies as close as possible in order to avoid awkward leaning/reaching while working. Consider turntables to rotate materials closer to the user. Be sure that only essential materials are in the hood to avoid unnecessary reaching around clutter. 
  • Consider lower-profile sample holders, solution container, waste receptacles to prevent awkward bending of wrist, neck and shoulders. Reduced repetitive movement also means increased efficiency.

Additional resources can be found at UCLA.

Other Tips

  • Gloves — Wear slightly snug gloves to reduce forces on hands and improve accuracy during fine manipulation. Wearing loose gloves during pipetting and other tasks makes manipulating small materials more forceful and difficult. 
  • Rotate tasks throughout the work day and among several people, whenever possible. Take frequent small rest breaks (1-2 minute in duration) every 20 minutes. Every 45-60 minutes, get up to stretch and move. 
  • Take vision breaks during intensive computer and fine visual work. Every 20 minutes, close the eyes or focus on something in the distance.

Cornell Resources

Cornell Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention Program (MIPP). The MIPP provides ergonomics assessment, training and planning services to the Cornell Community. All Cornell employees are eligible for services with the approval of their supervisor or Human Resources representative. Benefit Services demonstrates its commitment to employee health by offering the MIPP at no charge to Cornell employees and departments. Remember, you do not have to be uncomfortable or injured to benefit from MIPP services. Ergonomics is most effective when services are utilized for prevention. For more information, contact the Lead Ergonomics Consultant at Cornell Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention Program.

Early treatment of discomfort/injury and the continuous development a healthier lifestyle are critical to remaining healthy and productive at work. Take advantage these valuable resources: Cornell Physical Therapy and Cornell Wellness.