Adjust your posture and working position – Posture is important to avoid pulling your body in unnatural ways, which can put a strain on muscles and connective tissues. Maintaining proper posture can be accomplished by:
- Keeping a clean bench and organizing your consumables prior to working. This will prevent you from constantly stretching to reach tubes and tip boxes.
- Make sure your tip disposal jar is as low as possible. If the jar is too high, reaching up then pressing down on the pipette will put unwanted stress on your wrist.
- Find an ergonomic seat and keep your back in an upright position. You should probably do this at home too.
- Use padding, if needed, that you can rest your arms on.
- Keep your wrist in a neutral or straight position when pipetting, without twisting or rotating it. Avoid twisting your arms and wrists for all procedures, and set your elbows close to your sides, which maintains your shoulders in a sturdy, neutral position.
- Relax your muscles as much as possible; tensing up while you’re working will make it more likely you’ll suffer from RSI.
- If it helps, you can always hang your protocol in front of you, so you don’t need to constantly bend your neck and look down to find the next step.
Take breaks – Organizing your workload is key when trying to avoid RSI. When planning your workflow, make sure to include breaks as well. Stopping for a few minutes after a moderate period of repetitive motion is necessary, as it allows your muscles and joints to recuperate intermittently, lessening the burden on them.
The toll of all that hard work
RSI is more common in laboratory personnel than other workers. A study in Sweden found that the prevalence of RSI was double that of state employees who did not work in labs and that pipetting for more than 300 hours per year was a risk factor for RSI.2 A similar study in the United Kingdom confirmed these results, where 80 pipette users had an elevated risk of RSI compared with 85 people who did not use pipettes for their work, with almost 90% of workers who pipetted for 60 continuous minutes or more complaining of hand pain.3 In the United States, RSIs are not even specifically addressed by the US Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA); if a citation is issued for an RSI, it is categorized as a general duty clause that states labs must be kept free of safety hazards.4
RSIs represent a constant, silent danger to working in a lab. Once an RSI appears, it’s hard to treat since the part of the body that’s affected will need to keep performing that same activity again and again, making the injury worse over time. Ultimately, you lose productivity, and for some, their entire livelihood can be curtailed by a serious RSI. That’s why it’s worth investing in strategies to limit exposure to RSIs, making your lab a safer and more comfortable place to work in.
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- National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences. NIEHS Health and Safety Guide to Laboratory Ergonomics. Research Triangle Park, NC; 2001.
- Björksten MG, Almby B, Jansson ES. Hand and shoulder ailments among laboratory technicians using modern plunger-operated pipettes. Appl Ergon. 1994;25(2):88-94.
- David G, Buckle P. A questionnaire survey of the ergonomic problems associated with pipettes and their usage with specific reference to work related upper limb disorders. Appl Ergon. 1997;28(4):257-262.
- Fogarty M. Arm and Wrist Injuries Teach Scientists to Accept Limits. The Scientist. March 2004.