Is Ergonomics Important in Lab Design?

Apr 25, 2017 7:47:03 AM / by Albert Cappello

Designing and building a lab can be challenging enough, but factor in the added time and cost of incorporating ergonomics, and it can seem like overkill.

Or is it?

As someone who has been in this industry for over 20 years, I would like to offer some advice:

When it comes to ergonomics for your lab, it is better to plan ahead than pay a BIG price later!

We will get to more on this shortly.

Dealing With Challenging Lab Employees

Recently, I had a potential customer call me up and ask me if I had any ergonomic chairs for an employee in their lab who was having problems with her back. Not a problem...or so I thought!

ergonomics-important-lab-designApparently, this employee was a goldilocks of sorts. You see, she had already tried out at least eight different chairs, she had managed to find something wrong with every single chair, and they were running out of options.

Does any of this sound familiar to you?

For anyone who has managed employees, you’ve probably dealt with employees who have had one or more of the following problems: back pain, neck pain, hand pain, shoulder issues, circulation issues, numbness, eye strain, or headaches...just to name a few. It can be a challenge, to say the least.

Unfortunately for this manager, the company has a very strong labor union. So, management is required to address the situation and find this person a chair that meets her needs, even if it means parading in chair after chair. Las I heard, they were still looking for the "right" chair.

To understand how this company and the rest of us are now faced with this reality, you need to understand a little about how ergonmics became worker safety of the future.

Where did Ergonomics come from, and why do you need to worry about it?

Believe it or not, the concept of ergonomics probably started around the time that humans created tools, because they were constantly looking for new and better ways to make tools that made their tasks easier. We only need to look at the evolution in the look and shape of those tools to see early ergonomics in practice.

But, the idea of ergonomics really started to take off during the industrial revolution of the 1900’s, where production was dependent on human power and motion, making the efficiency of man and machine a priority.

After World War II ended, the focus of ergonomics had expanded to worker safety, as well as productivity. Labor unions entered the picture, and well, we all remember Norma Rae holding up her sign in the factory.

So why do you need to be concerned about ergonomics now that you are designing your lab?

Because ergonomics isn’t going away anytime soon! And, your employees know it.

Just ask any employer, who has had an employee all of a sudden complain about pain! Time off of work and a worker’s compensation claim later...the costs can add up quickly.

So, what has changed?

With the advancement in technology over the last couple of decades, the way people work has changed drastically. Lab workers used to be moving around all the time, but now those days are gone.

Now, tools are typically within reach, and information is recorded on computers and delivered electronically with the push of a button. This means that employees are sitting far longer than nature ever intended.

You can read more about the damaging effects of too much sitting here.

When they do get up to retrieve tools and additional materials, they are typically using bending, reaching and lifting motions. These are the motions that can lead to Musculoskeletal Disorders (MSDs) and become your worst nightmare.

According to U. S. Occupational Safety and Hazard Administration:

  • Work related MSDs are among the most frequently reported causes of lost or restricted work time.
  • According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) in 2013, MSD cases accounted for 33% of all worker injury and illness cases.

Which brings us back to why ergonomics is important in designing your lab.


Pay the Price Now, Or Pay Big Later

To quote a cliche...It is better to be proactive, than reactive. And, when the price of being reactive is really added up, you won’t mind a little extra time and a few hundred dollars extra for an ergonomic chair or some computer accessories.

ergonomics-lab-designJust check these statistics out:

According to Sound Ergonomics, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics reports 650,000 work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSDs), resulting in costs to employers of over 20 billion dollars. These costs include Worker's Compensation and medical expenses, the latter of which are increasing 2.5 times faster than benefit costs.

  • $1 of every $3 of Worker's Compensation costs are spent on occupational musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs)
  • Employers pay $15-20 billion per year in Worker's Compensation costs for lost workdays.
  • Mean costs per case of upper extremity MSD are $8,070 versus a mean cost of $4,075 per case for all types of work-related injury.
  • Worker's Compensation claims per injury equal $29,000 - $32,000 per year.
  • Medical bills for the average shoulder injury (excluding surgery) are $20,000 per year.

Indirect costs are 3 to 5 times higher, reaching approximately $150 billion per year. These include absenteeism, staff replacement and retraining, productivity, and/or quality. (Source: Sound Ergonomics)

Questions To Ask Yourself

So, right about now, you may be saying yourself...I am just designing a lab. It’s not like my employees will be working in a warehouse or factory lifting heavy boxes and equipment.

That may be true, but ask yourself this:

  • Will my lab employees sit a lot?
  • Will my lab employees work on computers?
  • Will my lab employees view through microscopes that have a neutral head position?
  • Will my lab employees have to reach more than 18” for anything?
  • Will my lab employees have to lift heavy boxes of supplies, such as bottles of chemicals?

These are just some of the questions that if you answered yes, indicate a need for you to include ergonomics in your design process.

Keeping in mind that any reputable lab manufacturer will offer lab design services that include ergonomics, there should be no reason not to do this up front.

By thinking about workplace health and safety as you design your lab, you can potentially save thousands if not hundreds of thousands in the long run.

Your employee performance, your employee well-being and your bottom line could depend on it.


Update Your Laboratory Furniture On A Budget

Topics: Laboratory, Laboratory Furniture

Albert Cappello

Written by Albert Cappello

Albert Cappello is the CEO of Workstation Industries, Inc. WSI is a manufacturer of Industrial, Technical and Laboratory Furniture based in Southern California.

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