LABORATORIES ARE PART of many industries, including manufacturing, healthcare, metallurgy, pharmaceutical, biotechnology, petroleum and fuel, and cosmetics. Critical research---such as stem-cell, enzyme, fuel alternative and medical---is performed in laboratories. Laboratory jobs are varied and may include the use of microscopes, fume hoods, chemicals, pipettes, flasks, glove boxes, automated analyzers, compressed gases, computers and similar equipment. Such an environment presents unique ergonomic hazards.

Ergonomics in the Workplace

Ergonomics---also called human factors engineering---deals with the fit between the worker and the job. "The approach of human factors is the systematic application of relevant information about human capabilities, limitations, characteristics, behavior and motivation to the design of things, and the procedures people use and the environment in which they use them" (Sanders & McCormick, 1993, p. 5). However, workstations have often been designed without consideration of human factors. Improper fit between the worker and the job may cause cumulative trauma disorders (CTDs)---which are also known as repetitive stress injuries, work related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and overuse disorders (Kroemer, Kroemer & Kroemer-Elbert, 2001, p. 384). CTDs can affect various parts of the body, including the back, neck, shoulders, elbows, hands, wrists and knees (Putz-Anderson, 1988). Onset generally is gradual in nature and results from repeated microtrauma to internal structures: muscles, tendons, ligaments, nerves, bones and cartilage (Ramos Vieira & Kumar, 2004, p. 153). Poor ergonomic conditions may also "serve as a contributor or exacerbator of an existing health problem or physical limitation" (Putz-Anderson, 1988, p. 4). If a worker has an underlying medical condition, such as a prior fracture, diabetes or circulatory problems, s/he is at greater risk of encountering pain or injury. An individual also may participate in nonwork activities that contribute to the disorder. When considering an injured worker's eligibility for workers' compensation, many states consider "aggravation of" tantamount to a causal connection. This means that if a job includes ergonomic stressors, the workers' compensation system may cover such an injury as work-related. Therefore, employers can benefit from incorporating ergonomic solutions. These benefits include the following:

  • preventing or reducing the severity of injury or illness;

  • reducing absenteeism and associated costs;

  • increasing efficiency, productivity and quality;

  • promoting comfort and well-being, which improves morale.

Ergonomic Stressors

The first step in integrating ergonomic considerations into the lab environment is to recognize hazards that stress the body and are associated with ergonomic-related injuries. Major ergonomic hazards include repetitive movement, excessive dynamic force (e.g., lifting, pushing, pulling that leads to overexertion); prolonged static force or posture; awkward posture; vibration; direct pressure/contact forces; and exposure to cold (Kroemer, et al., 2001, p. 391). Several key principles are important when assessing the level of risk associated with ergonomic hazards. The potential risk of injury is influenced by the duration of exposure, force and magnitude of the hazard. Risk level is important for prioritizing ergonomic intervention activities. As part of the ergonomic risk assessment, the level of physical exertion should also be assessed

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