Embracing Ergonomic Pipetting Technique



Avoiding the pain in the neck (shoulders, wrists, back, arms) in the lab — a New Year’s resolution.

Raise your hand if you pipette.

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.

What’s your damage?

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.

Make a New Year’s Resolution—Healthier Pipetting Habits

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.

5 Minute Full Body Stretch

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.

  • Chin-to-Chest Touch: Start standing or sitting facing forwards and slowly tilt your head to down so your chin touches your chest. Hold for ten seconds.
  • Head Tilts: Start standing or sitting facing forwards and slowly tilt your head to one side with your ear reaching towards your shoulder. Make sure to leave your shoulder in a neutral position. Hold for ten seconds, then slowly tilt your head to the other side. Repeat twice.
  • Head Turns: Start standing or sitting facing forwards and slowly turn your head so that you are looking over your right shoulder, keeping your head vertical. Hold for ten seconds, then slowly turn to look over your left shoulder. Repeat twice.
  • Horizontal Shoulder Adduction: Stand facing forward. Lift your left arm in front of you so that it’s parallel to the ground and slowly move it across your chest towards your right shoulder, using your other hand to gently pull the arm until you can feel the stretch. Your elbow can be straight or bent, whichever is most comfortable. Hold for thirty seconds. Repeat with your other arm.
  • Shoulder Rolls: Standing facing forwards, slowly roll your shoulders forward a few times, then backwards a few times.
  • Wrist Flexion: Hold your arms out straight in front of you, palms facing the floor. Use your left hand to grab the fingers of your right hand and gently pull back, bending at the wrist. Your palm should be facing forwards, or slightly tilted up. Hold for ten seconds then gently push your hand down, bending at the wrist so that your palm is facing towards you. Hold for ten seconds. Repeat with the other hand.
  • Finger Stretches: Stand with your arms relaxed and hanging down by your sides. Slowly alternate making a full fist, then outstretched hand. Repeat open/close motion for 10 seconds.
  • Hamstring Stretch: Stand facing forwards, cross one foot over the other and bend at the waist until you feel a stretch in the hamstring (back of the thigh) of the back leg.  Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat on the other side.
  • Calf Stretch: Stand facing forward and lift your left foot. Flex the foot, pointing your toes towards the ceiling until you reel a stretch in your calf muscle. Hold for 10 seconds. Repeat on the other side.

Additional Resources

Download Lab Report 3: Pipette Use and Ergonomics

About the Expert

Candie Gilman

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!