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Lab Induced Repetitive Strain Injury

The pipette is a key tool in the lab.  The typical lab technician spends an average of 500 hours per year undertaking pipetting activities.  This equates to approximately 2 hours per day.  It is a little wonder therefore that lab induced Repetitive Strain Injury (RSI) is a serious issue.

Repetitive Strain Injury is not Trivial

RSI is defined as repeatedly performing the same movements resulting in inflammation and damage to soft tissues.  It most often affects forearms and wrists as well as hands and fingers.  Symptoms, such as pain, tenderness and swelling typically start off gradually before becoming more intense and more constant.  Pipetting has been identified as one of the main activities that may lead to RSI and especially so in labs that are heavily invested in manual liquid handling.

Why Labs Need to Care About RSI 

A study by the University of Pittsburgh has shown that there is a significant increase in the risk of hand and shoulder discomfort when laboratory technicians pipette for more than 300 hours per year. That is the equivalent of 1.3 hours per day for a 50-week work year. Recall that the average lab technician actually pipettes for an average of 2 hours per day (500 hours per year).  

1.8 million workers in the U.S. experience musculoskeletal disorders

There are several reasons why labs should be concerned.

  • OSHA reports that each year 1.8 million workers in the U.S. experience musculoskeletal disorders. A third of the injuries are serious enough to lead to absenteeism and account for more than $15 billion per year in compensation claims. The total costs of these injuries add up to about $50 billion per year.  Clearly that is not just falling on those who pipette in labs but the numbers are relative in that absenteeism and injuries are a cost on the lab.
  • Productivity also declines as a result of RSI.  Lab personnel tend to move slower as a result and are simply unable to perform at the same levels or speed as they did prior to their injury.  
  • The risk of errors also increases as precision is compromised.  That alone brings along a host of other unwanted issues such as cross-contamination, repeated workflows and  a subsequent increase in costs.  Mention should also be given to compromised reproducibility.
  • The injury itself can lead to increased psychological stress on the team member(s) affected and in turn potentially lead to further absenteeism.  Those affected by RSI may also take unnecessary shortcuts due to their actual physical pain which again can lead to things such as failed experiments or incorrect results.

As noted, for every impact, there are further multiple consequences which only exacerbate the issue.

What Can Be Done?

There are multiple steps that labs can take to combat RSI.  These include:

  • Keep your neck in a neutral position when pipetting. Adjust the height of the chair so that you do not need to strain.
  • Sit back in the seat to keep your back supported and make sure your feet touch the ground.
  • Keep the elbows close by the side of your body so as to keep a neutral arm position.
  • Make use of both hands and maintain a straight position in your wrist (imagine you are shaking someone’s hand) when pipetting. 
  • Use a light touch versus a heavy force.  
  • Vary your activity on a regular basis so as to avoid continuous and constant pipetting activity.  

Automation can enhance the welfare of your lab team

There are many things that can be done in addition to the simple changes noted above.  The biggest game changer however, is to avoid doing repetitive activities- such as pipetting – completely.  In order to do that, labs would need to consider implementing an automation solution to take over instead.  

Automating liquid handling would significantly reduce the risk of RSI in the lab and all the negative, unwanted consequences by simply having a machine take over the repetitive and injury-prone activity of pipetting.  There are plenty of other benefits to automation such as enhanced safety, higher throughput, enhanced efficiency/productivity and less errors amongst many more.  

Reach out and discover how we can help reduce RSI in your lab today and allow you to leverage the benefits of lab automation.

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