Faculty/Staff Ergonomics

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Laboratory Ergonomics

Whether you plan to work in a research lab for one semester or throughout your career, there are ways to protect yourself from ergonomic hazards common in laboratory settings. 

Don’t wait until your body tells you it’s too late! The guidelines and ideas on this website are fairly simple to implement, and by incorporating them into your daily life, you can help avoid the aches, pains and sometimes injuries that poor ergonomics can cause.

Laboratory researchers are at risk for developing cumulative trauma injuries because of the repetitive nature of pipetting, use of small hand held tools, opening and closing vial caps, prolonged awkward postures at a microscope, laboratory hood or biological safety cabinet, and a variety of other laboratory tasks. The cumulative concept is based on the theory that each repetition of an activity produces some trauma or wear and tear on the tissues and joints of the body.These injuries occur gradually over time.

Common ergonomic risk factors include:

  • Repetition—performing the same motion over and over again.
  • Awkward Body Postures—sustained holding of a bent position of the neck, back, hands/wrists, arms raised above shoulder level or arms extended out in front of the body.
  • Force—physical exertion or pressure applied to any part of the body while working, such as lifting, pushing, pulling, gripping or pinching equipment or tools.
  • Contact Stress—pressure on soft tissues of the body, such as the soft part of the palm, wrist or the sides of fingers by tools and sharp edges.
  • Extreme Temperatures—cold air temperatures (55°F and lower) may cause loss of dexterity proportional to exposure time.

Common symptoms of cumulative trauma injuries include:

  • Pain
  • Numbness and tingling
  • Stiffness or cramping
  • Inability to hold objects or loss of grip strength

Symptoms that go away overnight are usually a sign of fatigue. Symptoms that are continuous and don’t go away overnight may indicate a serious problem. Those experiencing such symptoms should seek medical attention. Cumulative trauma injuries are easier to treat in their early stages. Ignoring symptoms can lead to chronic or serious injury.

It is important to plan experiments in such a way to avoid prolonged pipetting, microscope, laboratory hood, and biological safety cabinet work. The following pages offer prevention tips, ideas for tool modifying your tools, product information and stretches to try to help reduce ergonomic risks.


Most pipetting tasks are highly repetitive and demand hours of continuous effort. It is not uncommon to repeat aspirating and dispensing motions 1,000 times a day. The ejection motion requires the most force. The following suggestions may eliminate ergonomic risk factors while pipetting.

Watch this video to learn more about Pipette Safety & Ergonomics.

To reduce repetition:

  • Attach a microtube accessories to your vortexer to eliminate hand mixing with your pipettor.
  • Use pipettes where the thumb dispenses and the index finger aspirates.
  • Alternate using your right and left hand to pipette when appropriate.
  • Use ergonomic pipettes. These pipettes reduce repetition and excessive thumb force. Some manufacturers offer trade-in policies to help reduce the cost of purchasing new pipettes.
  • Set your pipetting experiments up to allow for stretch/rest breaks. Mild stretches give your muscles and tendons a rest.
  • Rotate pipetting activities with other laboratory tasks.

To reduce awkward postures: 

  • Keep head, shoulders and spine aligned in a balanced position.
  • Post protocols straight ahead at eye level to prevent bending or twisting.
  • Select pipettes that are lightweight and fit comfortably in your hand.
  • Work with arms close to the body to reduce shoulder strain. To help reduce reach:
    • Use shorter pipettes.
    • Place low waste receptacles for used tips no higher than the top of the tubes being filled.
    • Use short solution containers.
    • Position frequently used items close to you.
    • Remove false fronts under the worksurface and any supplies underneath to get closer to the work at laboratory hoods.
    • Open or remove cabinet doors and pencil drawers at lab benches.
  • Use arm supports if you are performing a task that requires reaching or elevating your arm without support. Adjustable arm supports help prevent fatigue in the neck, shoulders and arms.
  • Work with wrists in a straight, neutral position.
  • Keep your work at waist level. Adjust your workstation or chair to help prevent working with your arms in an elevated position.
  • Take breaks every 20-30 minutes and change your posture and activity frequently.

To reduce excess force:

  • Select pipettes that are lightweight and fit comfortably in your hand.
  • Use de-capping devices to open the micro-tubes.
  • Clean pipettes on a regular basis.
  • Use minimal force when applying pipette tips.
  • Use thin-walled pipette tips that fit correctly and are easier to eject.
  • Use electronic or multi-channel pipettes for repetitive tasks. These pipettes reduce repetition and excessive thumb force.
  • Because the thumb is stronger, use pipettes where the thumb dispenses and the index finger aspirates.

To reduce contact stress:

  • Avoid resting forearms on sharp edges. Use padding and/or elbow pads to minimize pressure. Avoid interference with air flow at the laboratory hoods.
  • Use anti-fatigue mats when standing for long periods of time.
  • Use adjustable chairs or ergo-task stools with a footrest. Leaning or resting on the foot rings can cut off circulation in the back of your thighs. (See product information)

Microscope Work

Microscope work usually involves prolonged sitting, high visual demands and repetitive adjustment of microscope controls. Common symptoms from microscope use may include eyestrain, sore hands from maneuvering the controls and sore necks and shoulders from awkward sitting postures. The following suggestions may eliminate ergonomic risk factors at the microscope.

To reduce repetition:

  • Limit microscope use to no more than 5 hours per day.
  • Take frequent stretch breaks and rotate tasks as often as possible.
  • Alternate using the right and left hands when making adjustments on the microscope.

To reduce awkward postures

Avoid jutting your chin forward or bending your neck down when using the microscope. Adjust the height of the chair, workbench or microscope instead. Adjust your chair height so that your thighs are horizontal or slanted slightly down, your back is supported and your feet are flat on floor. Use a footrest if your feet do not touch the floor. Leaning or resting on the foot rings can cut off circulation in the back of your thighs.

  • Raise, incline and move microscopes as close as possible to keep your head upright. Use sturdy items to raise the microscope, if needed, such as stackable risers or an adjustable monitor riser. An empty 2-inch binder can be used to angle the microscope forward. Secure the microscope to the binder with Q-Brace straps.
  • Use microscope adapters to promote balanced head, neck, shoulder and arm postures.
  • Use forearm rests to support your forearms while using adjustment knobs or hand tools to work with specimens under the microscope. This helps relieve fatigue and strain.
  • Have an eye exam if you are experiencing any visual difficulty. Wear glasses if needed.
  • Use television systems to eliminate the use of binocular eyepieces when appropriate.
  • Make sure there is adequate room under the work surface to pull the chair in as close as possible to the work task.
  • Open or remove cabinet doors to place your feet inside to help get closer to your work.
  • Work with elbows close to the body and have them bent as close to a 90-degree angle as possible
  • Work with wrists in a straight, neutral position.
  • Tilt storage bins toward you to reduce using awkward wrist postures while reaching for the supplies.

To reduce force

  • Enlarge your small hand tools such as forceps and dissecting needles by placing cylindrical foam around them. This helps reduce the pinch force.
  • Use locking mechanisms or other adaptive aides to reduce sustained force which using your forceps.
  • Watch the way you hold your small tools. Make simple tool modifications if you are not keeping your wrist straight.  

To reduce contact stress:

  • Avoid resting forearms on sharp edges. Apply desk edge padding to the front edge of the desk.
  • Use forearm supports or place a lab notebook along the sides of the microscope base to avoid resting on the edge of the base.
  • Use adjustable chairs with a footrest. Leaning or resting on the foot rings can cut off circulation in the back of your thighs. 

To reduce eyestrain:

  • Blink often, closing the eyelids completely, to keep your eyes moist.
  • Focus on a distant object - at least 20 feet away – every 15 minutes or so. This will give the muscles in your eyes a rest.
  • Cup your hands and place them gently over your closed eyes for a minute to rest them from the light.
  • Don’t touch or rub your eyes.

Laboratory Hoods and Biological Safety Cabinets (BSCs)

Working in Laboratory Hoods or Biological Safety Cabinets (BSC's) promotes awkward postures due to limited knee and thigh clearance, the position of the viewing window and the placement of work tools inside. Restricted arm movement increases stress on joints of the upper limbs, neck, and back. The following suggestions may help eliminate ergonomic risk factors while working at hoods or BSC’s.

To reduce awkward postures:

  • Remove false fronts and supplies from under the work area to get closer.
  • Position the materials in hoods and BSC’s as close as possible to avoid extended reaching. 
  • Place equipment on appropriate turntables for easy retrieval.
  • Use low-profile tubes, containers and waste bins to position your arms closer to your body.
  • Adjust your chair and sit back in the seat using the backrest.
  • Use anti-fatigue mats when standing for long periods of time.
  • Use foot rests and foot rings for leg support.
  • Keep your line of sight unobstructed when working in the hoods or BSC’s.
  • Take frequent stretch breaks and rotate your tasks as much as possible.

To reduce contact stress:

  • Place padding underneath your forearms and elbows.
  • Apply closed cell foam padding to the front edge of the hood or BSC without interfering with the airflow.

To reduce eyestrain:

  • Keep viewing window of hoods and BSC’s clean.
  • Uses diffuse lighting to limit glare.

Recommended Postures in the Lab

Research in a laboratory setting may require sitting, standing, using hand tools, pipettes, microscopes and working at laboratory hoods or biological safety cabinets. Some postures are more stressful than others and should be avoided. The photos in this section help illustrate some recommended as well as stressful postures, beginning with the wrists and elbows.

See Recommended Postures in the Lab 

Micro-manipulation Tools and Modification Techniques

Campus Resources for Laboratory Researchers

  • Laboratory Ergonomics Workshops: Principal Investigators, Department Safety Coordinators, or Department Safety Committees can schedule a laboratory ergonomics workshop by calling Ergonomics at (510) 643-2540.
  • Health and Safety Issues: Contact your Department Safety Coordinator, Department Safety Committee, or call Environment, Health, and Safety at (510) 642-3073.
  • Medical Care 
    • For faculty or staff with work-related medical problems, call the Occupational Health Clinic for an appointment at (510) 642-6891.
    • For students, call University Health Services for an appointment at (510) 642-2000.

Take a Stretch Break!

Take a 5-minute break away from your workstation every 1/2 hour!

  • Get up from your workstation and move around
  • Rotate your job tasks to avoid constant repetitive work
  • Try a few stretches* 

Stretches for your...

Remember these basics while stretching:
  • Pain is not gain! Stretch until you feel a mild tension that relaxes as you hold the stretch. If a stretch hurts, ease up on the amount of stretch. Stop doing the stretch if you can not do it without pain.
  • Don't bounce! Hold each stretch 5 to 30 seconds.
  • Breathe slowly and deeply while you stretch.

*Consult your health care provider before beginning a stretching program if you have had any recent surgery, muscle or joint problems.