The Importance of Microscope Ergonomics

The importance of ergonomics when using a microscope

Working with microscopes can be surprisingly dangerous.

The long hours and repetitive motions frequently lead to pain or injury, which in turn lead to medical costs, understaffing and a loss of productivity.

The best way to address these concerns is through ergonomics. By making the workplace safer, you can keep everyone happier and healthier while increasing efficiency.

What is ergonomics?

Ergonomics is the design and arrangement of the workplace with the goal of maximising safety, efficiency and comfort.

It has become an ever-growing field of research over the past 50 years as factories, offices and labs strive to reduce the incidence of preventable injuries and the accompanying loss of productivity.

The price of poor ergonomics

The nature of microscopy work has left parts of the industry with one of the highest rates of injury.

A normal workday often involves you spending long periods performing repetitive actions with a bent neck, and with hands and arms held in awkward positions.

This has led to up to 80% of long-term microscope operators suffering injury to their neck, back, shoulders, arms, wrists, legs, feet and eyes. For some particularly microscope-heavy areas such as cytology, the high dropout rate is often attributed to medical problems caused by poor ergonomics.

Aside from the obvious human cost of pain and injury, poor ergonomics also has a significant economic impact on businesses.

Some studies say 20% of microscopists have missed work due to musculo-skeletal injuries, while workers compensation claims for repetitive strain injuries have grown to $50 billion a year.

Considering these personal and professional risks, it is crucial for workplaces to provide microscopes and working conditions that promote good posture and minimise strain.

Common problems and how to prevent them

The main culprit is poor posture. This is largely due to the standard microscope design and the problem of shared workspaces.

Some of these concerns can be addressed by ‘personalising’ your workstation. But this is not always an option in shared areas. In shared labs, the purchase of ergonomic or adjustable microscopes and workstations can help. 

Neck and back

One of the biggest problems is the flexed neck posture operators adopt when using a conventional microscope. The bent neck and hunched back can lead to muscle strains, fatigue and pinched nerves.

The easiest solution is an adjustable microscope and adaptable workspace. Ideally, you want to be able to maintain a good posture with minimal bending of your neck and back.

Eyepieces that can be moved and tilted can reduce the need to lean forward or hunch over. Longer eyepieces can also help prevent users from having to bend your neck or back.

A chair and desk with adjustable heights can also ensure the eyepieces won’t be too high or too low. 

Eyes

Eyestrain, fatigue and headaches are a real concern, particularly for users with pronounced vision problems such as astigmatism and near or farsightedness.

Many microscope eyepieces require your eyes to be close to the lens, preventing the use of glasses – a big problem for anyone with astigmatism. While the diopter adjustments can compensate for some issues, they can’t reduce the blur from astigmatism. 

To accommodate glasses, use eyepieces with higher eyepoints. These give you a good view of the specimen even if your eyes are slightly further from the eyepieces due to wearing glasses.

A more general concern is the strain of using eyepieces for extended periods. This can be alleviated by displaying the microscope image on a screen instead of using eyepieces. An added benefit? Better posture.

Hands, arms and shoulders

Microscope operators often struggle with arm-related issues.

There are a whole host of potential problems:

  • Raised and extended arms can lead to shoulder problems and arm strains.
  • Arms rested on hard surfaces and sharp corners can damage nerves and tendons.
  • Repetitive motions lead to injuries such as carpal tunnel syndrome.

There are a few general solutions.

The first is using a microscope with convenient and accessible controls. If the focus knobs are handy and easily reached, there’s no need for you to extend or strain your arms. Workplaces that rely on touchscreens or tablets can provide alternative controls, so you don’t have to reach for the screen.

The other main solution is to provide support for arms, elbows and forearms. Make sure to always have a padded surface to rest on, regardless of the position of the arms. Padded chair arms, forearm pads, lifters and angled microscope arm supports can all help reduce strain.

Take a break

It can be helpful to simply take breaks and stretch, or to space out your microscopy work through the day as much as possible.

This will help reduce body and eye fatigue by breaking up the long periods in the same posture.

Switching to standing desks gives people another option for posture changes throughout the day.

Nikon Eclipse E-200 Microscope with Ergonomic Head

Conclusion  

Ergonomics is a growing concern.

Fortunately, ergonomic options for microscopy have never been more readily available. With minimal investment, you can greatly reduce the risk of injury and discomfort in your workplace.

An ergonomic workplace is the right choice, both medically and economically.

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