When Work Hurts: Taking the pain out of the job

For many people, aches and pains are considered all in a day’s work. The idea that humans need to adapt to the demands of the work is an antiquated concept that no longer has a place in today’s workforce.

Ergonomics is a familiar term often associated with office work. However, ergonomics is not just about adjusting the height of a chair, or any other work implement. It’s about creating a work environment that is productive while focusing on the human element of the work.

The Association of Canadian Ergonomists defines ergonomics as the “scientific discipline concerned with interactions among humans and other elements of a system (e.g. the tools, equipment, products, tasks, organization, technology, and environment)”. The laboratory setting has unique challenges to the adaptability of the environment versus the humans working in the environment. In an office setting, it’s common to find ergonomically correct desks, chairs, hand and back supports. These items are relatively inexpensive and easy to find in local office supply stores.

Laboratory equipment is another story. Tables, benches and workstations are highly customized to the work. They can be expensive and limited by supplier availability. Ergonomics in the laboratory becomes a question of immediate expense, rather than long- term health and wellness of the employees.

f1_1We humans are highly adaptable and flexible. We are willing to bend, twist, reach and contort our bodies in an effort to get the job done. Often time, this is when injury occurs. Injuries to muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, blood vessels, and joints of the neck, shoulders, arms, wrists, legs, and back are called musculoskeletal injuries (MSI) or musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). Both terms are used interchangeably, but they do refer to two origins of discomfort.

An injury can occur from a sudden occurrence, such as lifting something too heavy or over time from repeated exposure to the same movement pattern, as is the case in repetitive strain injuries (RSIs). MSI or MSD are one of the most common workplace injuries.

According to Health Canada, MSI claims are the largest amongst health care workers. “Musculoskeletal injuries (MSI), which account for the greatest number of time-loss injuries among healthcare workers, occur due to such factors as equipment inadequacies and poorly configured patient rooms, as well as work organizational factors such as high work demands, inadequate staffing, poor work morale and low social support.”

The unfortunate truth is that MSIs and MSDs are as common as they are preventable. They often occur with tasks that are repetitive or cause overexertion of the muscles. When looking at typical laboratory work, these two elements are abundant.

Abigail Overduin, Ergonomist for the University of British Columbia, instructs a course specifically for laboratory ergonomics. She says the laboratory is a unique workplace environment that may require special attention when considering ergonomic adjustments.

“Anything that is repetitive, particularly if awkward postures or force is involved, such as with pipetting, increases the risk of injury,” says Overduin, “as well as any task that requires the same body position for long periods of time, such as sitting or standing at a microscope.”

f1_2 A 1994 Swedish study, published in Applied Ergonomics, found there was an increased risk of hand and shoulder ailments associated with pipetting for more than 300 hours per year. The average lab technician has been found to pipette 495 hours per year. It’s no wonder that another study published in 2005 found that “90 per cent of users who pipette continuously for more than 60 minutes reported hand complaints.”

Although neck and back strain are considered part of the group of MSI ailments, they are a specific cause for concern in a lab setting. Microscope work uses multiple fine motor movements for long periods of time. Strain and stress on muscles in the eyes, neck, shoulders, hands and back can add up over time.

“Another risk is when we change the task from one extreme to another very quickly,” says Overduin. “If someone is sitting for a long time, then gets up, lifts something heavy, say a centrifuge router, they are at risk for injury. The body hasn’t had time to adjust to the new demand.”

There are elements that individuals can control within their work environment that can help reduce their risk of injury. Ensuring arms, neck and back are kept in a neutral position throughout a task will help eliminate tension and soreness. If standing for longer than two hours, take a short break to sit down to alleviate back, knee and feet soreness. The information included in the rest of this article can provide some simple reminders to consider when performing various tasks in the lab.

Ask your manager for devices that will help make your workstation more comfortable. Things like cushions to cover sharp corners of tables, adjustable chairs or anti-fatigue mats. These are relatively inexpensive and are readily available and easy to add to a workplace. Depending on the work you need to do, you can even ask to try different brands or styles of equipment, such as pipettes. There are pipettes that require less force, helping to reduce muscle fatigue. Workplace ergonomics is not a one size-fits-all solution. There should be open conversations happening to work on solutions that help everyone.

f1_3“Workplace culture plays a role in health,” says Overduin, “no one wants to be seen as weak or unable to do their job because they are uncomfortable or in pain.” She also suggests that the mentality of ‘work is pain’ can hold an entire organization back from taking necessary steps to help their employees.

“The idea that the pain will go away, or it will get better is the wrong thinking. People need to speak up sooner if they are experiencing discomfort while working.”

By waiting too long to get help, employees risk having acute injuries that turn to chronic problems. Employers need to look beyond the upfront costs of ergonomic accommodations to longer term benefits. It may cost a little bit more now to change the types of pipettes used, but it may decrease the number of sick days or lost time due to hand injuries over time.

Even with all the proper ergonomic concepts and equipment in place, there are just some jobs that will affect the body more than others. As long as people are mindful of their posture it can go a long way to prevent larger issues.

f1_4No need for an elaborate or possibly embarrassing stretching routine. Overduin suggests just straightening up, coming back to a neutral position and moving just a couple minutes every hour at work will help counter the effects of a certain position on the body. A more elaborate stretching routine may be done at home. She also recommends being aware of the demands of a task before beginning. “Understand the workflow and have the proper tools close-by,” she says. “Don’t improvise because you think it will only take a minute, it will compromise your posture and could result in injury.”

There are several reputable resources available for anyone looking for more information about workplace ergonomics. Many larger organizations, hospitals, universities, private labs, may have an in-house department that can assess the laboratory for potential risks. These departments are often part of Human Resources, Health and Safety or Risk Management. If you work in an organization that doesn’t have these services, there are public services available. The Association for Canadian Ergonomists’ website lists ergonomists across Canada that are available to provide workplace assessments. The most important tool in protecting your physical health at work is being educated about the possible risks involved and taking the corrective action to reduce those risks. It could be something as simple as having an open conversation with a manager, or speaking to your organization’s staff ergonomist. The main goal is to keep you working pain-free for many years.

1. Health Canada. Trends in workplace injuries, illnesses and policies in healthcare across Canada. 2004. Online http://www.hc-sc.gc.ca/ hcs-sss/pubs/nurs-infirm/2004-hwi-ipsmt/index-eng.php#f10 Association of Canadian Ergonomists http://www.ace-ergocanada.ca/
2. McLean, L., Tingley, M., Scott, R.N., Rikards, J. Computer terminals work and the benefit of microbreaks. Applied Ergonomics,
3. 32 (2001) 225-237. http://www.udel.edu/PT/PT%20Clinical%20Services/journalclub/caserounds/02_03/nov02/McleanL.pdf
4. Asundi, Krishna R., Bach, Joel M., and Rempel, David H. Thumb force and muscle loads are influenced by the design of a mechanical pipette and by pipetting tasks. Human Factors, vol. 47 no. 1 (2005) 67-76.
5. Almby, Bo, Björksen, Marianne Gerner and Jansson, Ejvor Sassarinis. Hand and shoulder ailments among laboratory technicians using modern plunger-operated pipettes. Applied Ergonomics, vol. 25 no. 2 (1994) 88-94.

The CSMLS would like to thank the following for their contribution for this article. The staff at Hamilton Health Sciences, Juravinksi Hospital laboratory for their contribution. Victoria McDonald and Andrea Tjahja for their assistance and The Public Services Health and Safety Association for use of their material. This article originally appeared in the Canadian Journal of Medical Laboratory Science, Vol. 75 no. 2 2013.

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