Body in Balance

Ergonomics Encourage Concentration in Lab Routine

November 16, 2012

Nobody is the same. Whether large or small, well- or slightly built, left- or right-handed, everyone has different demands on the tool they work with for many hours a day. This is particularly true of laboratory workstations, where routine tasks such as pipetting or microscope or microtome work require a static posture. Occupational medicine studies show that workplaces with optical instruments are particularly taxing on the spine, hand and eyes. Microscopy workstations place far higher strain on the user than the computer screens that receive so much public attention. The combination of sitting at the microscope in a fixed position and repetitive hand movements carries the risk of strain to neck muscles and the upper extremities.

Ergonomically designed workplaces and routines are therefore a prerequisite for wellbeing, motivation and efficiency. The initial investment in ergonomics soon pays off and has long-lasting benefits for all those involved, leading to better results, higher work quality and, ultimately, fewer working hours lost.

Physiotherapist John Ludescher explains how the body can be given optimal support to perform at its best.

Mr. Ludescher, which parts of the body are subject to particular strain when working with a microscope?

Mainly the cervical spine, the junction between cervical and thoracic spine, as well as the shoulder and neck muscles. The strain manifests itself in symptoms such as tenseness and pain in the shoulder muscles that may radiate into the arms, slipped discs, headaches, tinnitus symptoms and general states of exhaustion. The frequently observed anteroposition of the head also has a negative effect. This leads to an unfavorable position of the first cervical vertebra. Hyperextension of the wrists causes asymmetrical strain on the lower arm muscles, which can result in tendon sheath pain and the so-called "tennis elbow".

Fig. 1: Bodily complaints resulting from a sedentary posture.
Fig. 2: Relaxed body and head, arms comfortably supported, adequate space for the legs, good use of the chair.

What does an ergonomically ideal workplace at the microscope look like?

The body should be in a perpendicular line, i.e. ear, shoulder joint and hip joint have to be in vertical alignment. The first step towards achieving this is to make sure the chair is properly adjusted: In a sitting position, the hip joint should be at an angle of greater than 90 degrees to the upper part of the body. Also, the hip joints should be higher than the knee joints to be able to bend both legs at right angles. This straightens the position of the pelvis, making sitting less tiring. The muscles are in a neutral position and strain is avoided. Finally, when adjusting the inclination of the seat it is important that the pressure of the seat is evenly distributed to the thighs. In a second step, the table has to be set at the right height and the right working distance between the chair and the table must be observed.

After these adjustments have been carried out, it’s time for the third step: the position of the microscope is adjusted to enable an upright posture. Depending on the user´s physique, the viewing height and angle of the tube has to be adjusted until he or she can work in a comfortable upright posture and with the correct working distance. Of course, this is only possible with a microscope system featuring variable binocular tubes and flexible accessories. They should also be easy to handle, as in many laboratories several employees use the same microscope in succession. In this respect, Leica Microsystems provides a pioneering portfolio of products.

That is the best case scenario. And what is everyday reality in a laboratory?

Most people sit down first and then adjust their posture to the microscope, which inevitably leads to posture errors and the types of pain I described.

Fig. 3: The PhysioCap with a silicone insert weighing 500 grams trains and conditions the neck and spine muscles and encourages the body to automatically assume a good upright posture.

What else can be done do to counteract physical strain at the microscope?

Extremely important, of course, is physical fitness, a healthy lifestyle and awareness of the body. Because to bring the body into the perpendicular line necessary for relaxed sitting and working, you have to know how it feels when you are in equilibrium. After all, you can’t have a look at yourself in a mirror first! The PhysioCap I designed is useful for this. It’s a baseball cap with a silicone insert weighing 500 grams. It gives you the feeling you’re balancing a book on your head. This cap trains and conditions the neck and spine muscles and encourages the body to automatically assume a good upright posture. With time, a correct posture is "programmed". Good results can only be delivered if the body, of which we demand a great deal, is offered optimum conditions. An upright, comfortable posture improves concentration and the quality of work – and makes you feel less exhausted at the end of the day. After all, a successful day doesn’t end when you leave the laboratory.

Fig. 4: Before and after optimization of the posture with the "PhysioCap"

Video "Ergonomic microscope in the workplace"

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