A person slouches while sitting at their laboratory bench, causing musculoskeletal strain, indicated by a yellow highlight on their spine.
Poor ergonomics while at the laboratory bench increases the risk of injury and can lead to a number of musculoskeletal disorders. 
© Adobe Stock, Dr_Microbe

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What Is Laboratory Ergonomics?

Laboratory ergonomics involves designing workstations, tools, and processes to best fit the worker and optimize performance of the work system.

Ergonomics addresses the whole human, spanning physical, cognitive, and work organization domains. This science integrates principles and data from related disciplines including engineering, anatomy, physiology, and psychology to minimize exposure to risk factors and improve worker well-being.

Primary physical ergonomics risk factors include the following.

Awkward body postures
Non-neutral postures such as the arm extended forward from the body, the neck bent up, the wrist bent to the side, or the back bent forward
Forceful exertions
Strong muscle activity such as pinching, gripping, pressing with the finger/thumb, or lifting heavy items
High frequency movementRepeating exertions without adequate rest within the work cycle
Long work duration
Performing the same work task for long portions of the work shift
Contact StressHard surfaces or sharp edges pressing on sensitive areas such as the finger, wrist, or elbow

Why Should Ergonomics Be a Priority?

Avoid Fatigue, Discomfort, and Injury

Prolonged exposure to ergonomic risk factors in the laboratory can lead to muscle fatigue, discomfort, and work-related musculoskeletal disorders such as tendonitis, muscle strain, or carpal tunnel syndrome.

Combinations of risk factors further increase the risk of injury. Repetitive, high-force tasks, such as manual pipetting, are associated with higher rates of injury than non-repetitive, high-force tasks or tasks requiring low force and/or low repetition.1

Improve Performance

Muscle fatigue from repetitive forceful exertions can negatively affect performance. Hand muscle fatigue leads to reduced accuracy and precision and, as muscles fatigue, force output becomes more variable, which affects task precision.2-5

A cartoon of a scientist sitting at a laboratory bench while following proper ergonomics. Tips for good ergonomics practices are listed.
By following guidelines that improve ergonomics, scientists can keep themselves and their experiments healthy.
The Scientist

What Are Common Ergonomic Hazards in the Life Science Laboratory?


Hand, elbow, and shoulder ailments are reported at higher rates for laboratory workers that regularly use manual pipettes, as compared to non-laboratory workers.6,7 This is attributed to the repetitive forceful hand and thumb exertions used to aspirate, dispense, and eject tips. Pipetting with the wrist bent or the hand away from the body increases the strain. Opening and closing tubes, holding and tilting plates or bottles, and repetitive vortex use increases overall risk exposure.

Workstation Setup 

The design of the workspace and location of the tools effect the working posture in the following ways.

Workstation Problem
Resulting Awkward Posture
Bench without leg space 
Bent torso with arms reaching forward
Worksurface higher than resting elbow height
Shrugged shoulders
Worksurface that is too low
Bent neck and rounded back
Vortex at the back of the bench
Arm reaching away from the body
Pipetting inside a hood or biosafety cabinet
Shrugged shoulder and extended arm

Microscope Use

Given the natural variation in human anthropometry and the fixed design of most microscopes, prolonged microscope work can result in musculoskeletal discomfort or injury associated with sustained awkward postures and contact stress.8,9 Scientists may also experience eye strain if they have decreased blink-rates and take infrequent visual rest breaks.

Tips for Improving Ergonomics in the Laboratory

  • Design the space for adjustability, maximum body clearance, and minimum reach.
  • Set up the workspace to promote neutral posture and provide support for the legs, back, and arms. Make individual adjustments to the seat, the hand-work position, and the visual target.
  • Choose the right tools. For example, select low-force tools that promote neutral wrist posture and minimal repetition, and use stands to hold tubes, plates, and bottles at an angle for easy access.
  • Take frequent pauses and regular breaks to rest muscles that have been working, reset joints to neutral positions, and move the body to increase circulation.

Bench, biosafety cabinet, and hood setup

  • Clear the space for knee (sitting) or toe clearance (standing).
  • Adjust the seat and/or bench height to have the worksurface near elbow level or lower if pipetting.
  • Sit deep in the seat for back support and support the feet on the floor or a footrest.
  • Set up frequently used items within a forearm’s distance and in a logical sequence.
  • When standing, elevate work on a platform if needed.

Microscope setup

  • Use a height-adjustable bench when standing and ensure adequate leg room if sitting.
  • Adjust the seat and/or bench so that the microscope’s eye tubes are at eye height with a straight neck. 
  • Use relaxed shoulders with elbows near 90 degrees. Add pads to support the arms as needed.
  • Follow the 20-20-20 rule: every 20 minutes, look 20 feet away for 20 seconds.

Pipetting tips

  • Use good fitting tips and press lightly to attach and eject.
  • Keep the wrist straight; reposition the body, plate, or pipette to do so.
  • Avoid over-extending the thumb; adjust the grip position if necessary.
  • Use electronic pipettes for prolonged, repetitive, or forceful work.


  1. Silverstein BA, et al.  Occupational factors and carpal tunnel syndrome. Am J Ind Med. 1987;11(3),343-358. 
  2. Huang C-T, et al. Exertion dependent alternations in force fluctuation and limb acceleration during sustained fatiguing contraction. Eur J Appl Physiol, 2006;97(3),362-371. 
  3. Hunter SK, et al. Fatigability of the elbow flexor muscles for a sustained submaximal contraction is similar in men and women matched for strength. J Appl Physiol, 2004;96(1),195-202. 
  4. Huysmans MA, et al. Fatigue effects on tracking performance and muscle activity. J Electromyogr Kinesiol, 2008;18(3),410-419. 
  5. Lorist MM, et al. Motor fatigue and cognitive task performance in humans. J Physiol, 2002;545(1),313-319. 
  6. Björksten MG, et al. Hand and shoulder ailments among laboratory technicians using modern plunger-operated pipettes. Appl Ergon, 1994;25(2),88-94. 
  7. David G, Buckle P. A questionnaire survey of the ergonomic problems associated with pipettes and their usage with specific reference to work-related upper limb disorders. Appl Ergon, 1997;28(4),257-262. 
  8. Kofler M, et al. "Occupational backache" – surface electromyography demonstrates the advantage of an ergonomic versus a standard microscope workstation. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2002;86,492-497. 
  9. Kalavar SS, Hunting KL. Musculoskeletal Symptoms Among Cytotechnologists, Lab Med, 1996;27(11):765-769.
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