Avoiding the pain in the neck (shoulders, wrists, back, arms) in the lab — a New Year’s resolution.
Now raise your hand if you’ve ever experienced pain after pipetting (or wiggle an eyebrow if you can’t raise your hand because your shoulder hurts from a repetitive stress injury). When I go onsite to do pipette proficiency training, 15-25% of the people in the room raise their hands when I ask if anyone’s experienced pipette-related stress injuries. While this is a very informal poll, it gives some indication of how widespread a problem pipette injuries can be. The challenge is that while operator health is where the focus tends to land, ergonomic issues can wreak havoc with an operator’s proficiency. It’s a double whammy. Let’s face it, it can be difficult to set up an ergonomic lab and some labs are more aware of the issues than others.
Depending on your lab setup and the type of experiments you’re doing, many different parts of your body can be affected by sub-optimal positioning. In addition to arm and wrist injuries, neck, shoulder, and back strain can happen if you’re hunched over pipetting for too long.
I remember being in the lab and getting caught up in an assay that was basically ten straight hours of pipetting. I was so focused and in the zone I didn’t realize that anything was wrong until I tried to write a check later that evening (yes, it was some years ago). The pen just fell out of my hands. I’d done so much pipetting that I could no longer grip anything and my hand felt like this alien thing at the end of my arm.
Fortunately, there are a number of things you can do to improve your positioning and pipetting ergonomics to help avoid repetitive stress injuries. These include modifying your work area, taking breaks that include stretching, and—if you’re really pipetting a lot—switching to a different style of pipette that fits your hand and requires less force to use. I recommend taking a look at the Artel Lab Report, Issue 3, “Pipette Use and Ergonomics,” which collects a bunch of recommendations from around the web into a single document. But don’t just read the report, make sure to create a plan to implement more ergonomic pipetting—it can be a New Year’s resolution for a healthier lab.
Each of these stretches, performed for 10 seconds, can get your blood moving and your achy muscles re-energized! Schedule them every 2-3 hours for maximum benefit.
Candie Gilman, Training Product Manager for Artel Pipette Quality Management and Technique Certification programs, has coached hundreds of laboratory professionals, helping pipette users and quality assurance managers standardize their pipetting technique. Her hands-on seminars include an ergonomics module to help participants identify ergonomic risk factors and adjust their work space. Her goal is to ensure trainees are both proficient and healthy!