Manual pipetting is one of the most repetitive laboratory techniques, and has been associated with pain in 90% of users in one-hour uninterrupted pipetting sessions. More than 80% of life scientists in a recent survey reported pipetting for at least one hour every day, while almost 30% report pipetting for more than three hours. Given these numbers, many lab workers likely suffer from repetitive strain injury (RSI).
What is Repetitive Strain Injury?
RSI results from repetitive physical actions or movements that lead to overuse of certain tissues, causing them to become worn and damaged over time resulting in symptoms including aching, cramping, tenderness, stiffness, throbbing, tingling, numbness, swelling, and weakness.
RSI is often described as a single condition, but is actually an umbrella term for a related group of disorders caused by repetitive movements, including carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, tennis elbow, and trigger finger/trigger thumb. RSI can be triggered by many different types of actions, from small, frequent movements such as mouse clicking and typing to vigorous, forceful movements like pipetting to simply working in awkward positions or with bad posture.
Manual Pipetting May Contribute to RSI
While RSI can theoretically occur in any body part, it is most often seen in the upper body, affecting the forearms, elbows, neck, shoulders, wrists and/or hands. As with many chronic conditions, the symptoms appear gradually and can be mild or severe. Symptoms may come and go or appear only at night, making it difficult to pinpoint the cause. If symptoms are ignored, RSI may become difficult to treat and may require surgery. In severe cases, RSI can severely reduce or even inhibit one’s ability to work and carry out everyday activities and duties.
Manual pipetting protocols involves all of these factors.
Drawing up and dispensing liquids requires continuous and repetitive motion of the thumb -- a repetitive action involving the muscles, tendons and joints of the thumb, as well as the whole hand and wrist. Applied, repetitive force is required for plunger operation while dispensing liquids, tip ejection, and in some cases straining to hold onto a poorly designed pipette. Lab technicians are often required to sit or stand in static, suboptimal positions for the shoulders, head, and neck, while pipetting, as well, extending RSI in pipette users beyond the hands and wrists.
How You Can Minimize Your RSI Risk
While it’s difficult to change the repetitive nature of pipetting, you can reduce your risk of developing RSI by changing your behavior in the lab and using good pipetting technique. Below are five pipetting technique changes you can easily make to reduce strain:
- Adjust your chair so you can pipette without reaching up or stretching unnecessarily.
- Don’t twist or rotate your wrist while pipetting.
- Change hands at regular intervals when pipetting to allow each hand rest.
- Keep arms close to your body while pipetting.
- Hold the pipette with a relaxed grip.
For a more detailed overview of how to reduce pipetting-induced RSI, review these comprehensive guidelines from the National Institutes of Health.
As well as practicing good pipetting technique, you can also organize your workspace to reduce your risk of developing RSI. Here are 4 changes you can make to your workspace:
- Positioning frequently used items to minimize leaning and reaching.
- Ensuring your tip disposal container is below your pipetting container
- Hanging protocols at eye level to prevent bending or twisting.
- Hanging multiple copies of your protocols in different locations to better suit your workflow, if necessary.
- Using padding on the surfaces against which you rest your arms and legs.
Beyond making changes to your overall workspace, you may also consider investing in ergonomic pipettes and laboratory equipment. Manufacturers of pipettes and pipette tips have taken the issue of RSI so seriously that there is now a wide range of ergonomic products available to suit all lab needs. For example, ergonomic pipette tips have flexibility around the mounting area, making them easier to securely attach without needing to apply extra repetitive force to bang them into place. If you are unsure about level of RSI risk in your lab or workspace, consult the ergonomics-responsible person in your organization or reach out to an external ergonomics specialist.
Lab Robots Can Take Over Pipetting For You
The tips above should help you carry out repetitive pipetting work in a manner that reduces your risk of developing RSI, but you can minimize pipetting tasks -- or, in some cases, eliminate them altogether -- by using a lab robot. If you want to find out more about how to work a liquid handling robot into your workflow, or apply automation to your pipetting protocols, we'd be happy to talk you through it.
We’ve also included these tips in a handy infographic below for your reference. To better pipetting!
If you develop symptoms of RSI please consult your doctor, and if you believe that your symptoms are related to your work, speak to your employer or occupational health representative.