Inside a scientific laboratory

Reducing risks in a laboratory: an ergonomic approach

Designing for the safety, comfort, and productivity of scientists and lab technicians.

Today’s lab designers strive to improve the efficiency, safety, and comfort of the lab environment, and the application of ergonomics plays a key role in that work. Every aspect of a lab’s design impacts the people who work in it. The first aspect to tackle is the space itself: air quality, light, and sound all affect the scientists, lab technicians, and maintenance staff. Once that is accounted for, the planning around equipment, casework, storage, and operations offers opportunities to create a lab that works as well for the individual scientists as it does for the science.

What are ergonomics?

Ergonomics combines the knowledge of the mechanics and physiology of the human body with an understanding of how people interact with space, equipment, and materials. When applied to a lab design process, ergonomics considers the safety, comfort, and productivity of the scientists and lab technicians who will work in the space. Lab designers look at how the lab team works, the tasks they will perform, where the tasks happen, the equipment that will be utilized, and how people interact with each other.

It’s complex and fascinating, and by definition, one size does not fit all.

For example, in the United States, women aged 20+ have an average height 63.5 inches, while men aged 20+ average 69 inches. The average is helpful, but it’s important to consider a range of sizes, capabilities, and limitations.

As part of planning and design, lab designers consider the movements of people at work:

  • Lift
  • Bend
  • Reach
  • Pull
  • Fine motor movement
  • Repetitive tasks

While many of these movements may not seem inherently risky, consider the possibility for injury when a bend or lift is done wrong. Fortunately, good ergonomic design can mitigate the risks in a laboratory.

Tools to assess ergonomic risks for laboratory employees

There are a number of tools that can inform lab planning to reduce the risks in a laboratory for employees. These allow lab users and designers to collaborate, and gather information that can benefit laboratory personnel throughout the lifecycle of a space. Environment, Health & Safety (EHS) personnel can leverage it when remediating existing facilities, and lab design teams use the foundational information provided to develop tailored solutions. Tools like these take into account vast data sets that allow for informed guidance and decision making.

visual stat on nonfatal job injuries

1.  NIOSH Lifting Equation + WISHA Lifting Calculator

The NIOSH Lifting Equation calculates the risks of lifting and lowering materials in the workplace. It provides a Recommended Weight Limit (RWL) determined by inputting a variety of data points like horizontal and vertical lifting requirements, distance an object must be carried, twisting or angular movement, among others.

Alternatively, the WISHA was developed as part of the Washington Industrial Safety and Health Act, and it’s based on research around work-related back injuries. It can be used as a quick calculation to help a designer determine if there is risk potential that should be investigated further.

To determine lifting risks and requirements, users identify the heaviest items they are responsible for moving in their environment. In a biology lab, this might include liquid media, buffer, and samples; in a chemistry lab, it might be volumes of caustic or flammable materials that must be moved from specialized containment for use in fume hoods. Designers can then use this information and the NIOSH Lifting Equation and WISHA Lifting Calculator to identify areas for improvement and find solutions to mitigate lab risks.

2.  Rapid Upper Limb Assessment (RULA)

The RULA calculates the risk of loads placed on the neck, trunk, and arms. It’s particularly useful for determining the impact of repetitive movements.

Pipetting, manipulations inside biosafety cabinets, and tissue slicing are just a few laboratory examples where RULA calculation would come into play. From observing a lab user perform the task, a designer can use the tools to score the required movements to identify the most risky tasks and make adaptations to improve ergonomics.

3. Snook Tables

These tables offer guidelines around weights or force for manual tasks (pushing, pulling, lifting, or carrying) that are acceptable for banded percentages of the population.

In the laboratory environment, users perform numerous push-pull operations involving equipment, vivarium racking, glassware carts, and waste drum disposal. Snook tables allow designers to understand the limitations that exist for different capabilities. A designer can study the materials and the handling equipment and make spatial and operational adjustments to identify risks in a laboratory and address areas of concern.

These tools are helpful, but they’re nothing without practical application. That means that designers must get real-world data from lab users to create an ergonomic design that will reduce lab risks by prioritizing safety, comfort, and productivity.

 

Gather user input to reduce the risks in a laboratory

A key part of the design process involves gathering intelligence and feedback from users. First-hand, day-to-day use can reveal not just the lab staff’s challenges, but also potential solutions. When renovating an existing lab, designers can observe the tasks and workflow being performed in the space to make informed decisions; however, when designing a completely new lab, you won’t get to observe users in the environment. Instead, you have to rely on what they’ve done in the past, and what they’d like to do in the new space. These are some of the ways to get lab users’ input:

simple questionnaire - icon

Questionnaires. With so many easy-to-use web-based solutions, this is a simple way to gather the data needed to start the planning process.

group feedback & conversation - icon

Interviews and group sessions. One-on-one or group sessions with lab users will provide valuable detail. If possible, have conversations with users before starting work, and engage them throughout the design process to refine designs.

Virtual reality glasses - simple CRB icon

Virtual reality. While the lab is still in the design phase, virtual reality technology allows the users to experience the space. As such, the lab team can provide better feedback than they might when working with drawings. There are also augmented reality tools that analyze a person’s movement in real-time. These tools will point out operations that may have negative implications on ergonomics.

 

Designing ergonomic interiors to reduce laboratory risks

Once a designer understands the work that will take place in the lab, the materials required, the tasks involved, and the people on staff, they can combine that knowledge with ergonomic principles to reduce lab risks and create an optimal work environment. Some key areas to consider are casework, storage, equipment, and operations. Each of these elements should be designed with the safety, comfort, and productivity of the lab staff in mind.

Casework

Casework is a huge piece of the puzzle when renovating or designing a new lab. Ideally, casework is flexible and adjustable to meet the differing needs of the scientists, and the science, now and in the future.

Considerations:

  • The ratio of fixed casework to mobile. Flexible casework does make for an adaptable, future-proof lab, but in some cases, work is vulnerable to vibration, so some fixed casework may be needed.
  • The amount and type of storage required to make everyday tasks efficient. This will affect decisions on location, size, and number of drawers and cupboards built into the lab bench, and the height of storage.
  • Work surface height is also an important variable. Will the lab team stand or sit on stools? If sitting, is there adequate space for knees? Are the stools height adjustable?
  • And finally, what utilities are required and are they easily accessible?

If you are updating an existing lab, look for solutions that can improve ergonomics. Has knee space been used to store items that could be placed in a more efficient location? Are you looking at stagnant adaptable casework? Often, casework can be adjusted, but simply hasn’t because people fall into habits over time. Reach out to your facilities team about reconfiguring casework; it may require moving some nuts and bolts.

Storage

Most labs require a large number of consumables, which means they also make use of storage solutions. When planning, it’s Important to consider both micro storage – at the workstations, and macro storage – whether that’s a just-in-time closet in the lab environment or a warehouse farther away, as well as how scientists and lab technicians interact with each.

diagram showing how to reduce risks in a laboratory

Considerations:

  • There are restrictions on what people should be reaching for, in terms of both height and depth. To reduce risks in a laboratory, heavy items should be stored in the range between the shoulders and knees; consider removing shelves that are above reasonable ranges. Ideally, select adjustable or operable solutions. For example, shelving sliders that allow users to pull individual shelving units out of a cabinet not only make it easier to reach materials, it reduces the chances of spoilage on items that are hidden at the back.
  • Materials required for the science. If the science requires large amounts of heavy materials, don’t plan to store them overhead. And regardless of weight, avoid storing materials at a height that would require people to step on a stool or reach beyond their height.
  • Take opportunities to divide materials into smaller, more manageable parts, especially if you are planning to store items above waist level. Bulk items, like test tubes and plates, can be broken down into their smaller packs of 250.
  • Add in tools like carts, dollys, and bins to assist movement as needed.
  • Where possible, keep smaller quantities of materials within proximity of the work environment.

Procurement teams often take advantage of quantity discounts that contribute to storage issues: cluttered aisles, crowded storage areas, or higher-than-ideal stacks. Identify the likelihood of this in the early planning stages by involving the procurement team in the survey process.

Equipment and operations

You may assume that automated equipment looks after lab risks and ergonomics, well, automatically. This isn’t always the case and is worth investigating. Simpler actions, like staying up-to-date and re-writing procedures as workflows change can also have a significant impact. Think big picture and small when reviewing equipment and operations.

 

4 labs with different lab risks

Considerations:

  • Map through the entire process, including maintenance, cleaning, and waste disposal as part of the design approach. This often uncovers areas for improvement.
  • Exposure control. An obvious need for work with hazardous materials, but important also for air flow and comfort. Remember fume hoods are essential to safety but can be noisy. Consider how sound affects the people working in the lab every day.
  • Review access to point of use, for example, the in and out of gloves in an isolator environment.
  • Note the appropriate feed of material such as liquids or consumables into the equipment.
  • Examine repetitive tasks and ensure comfortable height and reach distances.
  • Investigate equipment options. A standard sterilizer may seem like a go-to, but a different design may be more appropriate for your labware and space.
  • Analyze consumables. How often they need to be replaced, and where they should be stored as a result.

Actions to improve the ergonomics in your lab environment today

While architects and engineers can improve the ergonomics in a lab, the day-to-day experience of the lab managers, scientists, and technicians is essential to this important work. You add real-life experience to the analysis of daily routines and can look critically at the space and work they do every day. Small improvements like rearranging storage, adjusting casework, and reorganizing people to better manage workflow can have a huge impact in reducing laboratory risks. You can also review training materials, or create them, if they don’t exist.

Lab managers should consider chartering an ergonomic assessment to identify and remove lab risks. This may seem costly at the outset but taking a proactive role in preventing lab injuries while improving safety and comfort will pay back in the long run through lower absenteeism and higher employee retention.

Interested in identifying and removing your lab’s hidden risks? Our team of ergonomic-minded design experts are here to help.

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