Ask the Expert

Ergonomic Lab Design

Ergonomic Lab Design

Ken Mohr and Jinhee Lee of HERA laboratory planners discuss the keys to ergonomically-friendly laboratories in this Q&A with Lab Manager lab design editor MaryBeth DiDonna

MaryBeth DiDonna
Ken Mohr, principal at HERA laboratory planners.

Ken Mohr, principal at HERA laboratory planners, provides extensive experience in developing technically complex laboratory facilities for education, industry, and government. He has worked on more than nine million square feet of technology-driven dry/wet analytical/diagnostic laboratories. He has comprehensive understanding of the specialized considerations and technical issues of these facilities including process flow, operational efficiency, health and safety, security, and regulatory criteria.

Jinhee Lee, CDT, associate at HERA laboratory planners.

Jinhee Lee, CDT, is an associate at HERA laboratory planners. Equally capable in laboratory design and planning, Jinhee believes you don’t need to sacrifice form for function. Laboratories can be both beautiful and functional. Jinhee brings extensive experience in laboratory spaces for academic, R&D, forensic, and government projects. She has excellent skills in organizing and coordinating the collaborative efforts of client groups and design professionals to achieve project goals in an efficient and successful process.


Q: What is “ergonomics” in regards to lab design?

Jinhee Lee: The US National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) defines ergonomics as the scientific study of people at work. Ergonomics is not simply providing good lab seating or making items reachable; it is the relentless pursuit of good design in the workplace for what people do well, and design against for what people do not do well, thereby fitting the job to the person to enhance human performance. Laboratory environments require constant repetition, intense hand-eye coordination, precise arm and hand movements, manual materials handling, and acute visual concentration. The scientists working in these high-tech labs are exposed to a multitude of ergonomic risks due to the nature of their work. Implementing Universal Design—a phrased coined by architect Ronald Mace to describe design that is accessible to all regardless of gender, age, disability, or other factors—emphases ergonomic aspects that address flexibility and provide comfort. Modern laboratory environments are focused on science, and the humans engaged in the work are sometimes forgotten. We approach lab design in a holistic way, considering workstation design to accommodate an individual’s needs, lab environment response to personal comfort, acoustical control, removing barriers to increase productivity, and maximizing natural light.

Q: What are some of the risk factors involved with improper ergonomics?

Jinhee Lee: One potential risk is reduced working memory—what we use for reasoning and guiding decision-making and behavior. Poor lighting, unnecessary noise, and distractions can hinder our ability to concentrate, a serious problem in an environment that requires intense focus. Proper design can help. A flexible design solution with multiple configurations and utility delivery can accommodate the scientific need while enhancing ergonomic design. real risk is eye fatigue. We associate positive and negative feelings with colors. Color can also send a message of calm or energy. In laboratory design, black countertops are often the standard. However at least one government study has found that workers who stare at black countertops for more than four hours encounter eye fatigue resulting in reduced ability to concentrate and increased lethargy.

Q: What kind of technology do you use in ergonomic lab design?

Jinhee Lee: Good lab design that meets Universal Design meets everyone’s needs. Some design solutions like wire pulls and knobs tend to snag lab coats, get bumped into, and cause injury. One way to resolve this issue is to provide a recessed pull with an angled recess for easier accessibility. Another exciting technology that is increasing rapidly is the use of robotics to perform a wide variety of mundane tasks, alleviating repeat actions such as moving trash, delivering glassware, distributing consumable supplies, and moving heavy pallets of material. A government building under design in Singapore is providing a template for how Autonomous Guided Vehicles can perform these time-consuming tasks.

Q: What is the most common complaint or request from lab users in regards to ergonomic lab design?

Ken Mohr: The most common complaints from lab users about their existing laboratory space often include a lack of knee openings, countertops set at the wrong height, noise issues, poor lighting, temperature problems, and the lack of good lab seating at the bench.

Q: What is a common misunderstanding about ergonomics in lab design?

Ken Mohr: The most common misunderstanding is that one simply applies the design guidelines following Americans with Disabilities (ADA) Act that they are addressing ergonomics. This is only a small part of good ergonomic design. The Department of Justice published revised regulations for portions of the ADA to set minimum requirements—both scoping and technical—for government facilities, public accommodations, and commercial facilities to be readily accessible to and used by individuals with disabilities. Most architects apply the design guidelines universally on doorways, regarding pull and push access for reach clearance. Depending on the client type (private, state, or federal), a review of the regulations must occur, followed by a determination of how to apply the regulations. Most regulations state that five percent of the facility needs to meet ADA requirements, or no fewer than one workstation that meets ADA regulations must be provided in each lab. Both allow an individual with a disability the opportunity to work in a lab at the bench, sink, fume hood, and instrument station. The common response to these regulations is to lower the bench height and fume hood work surface height to 34”, along with the controls for services, and bring the sink and services fixtures forward within a 12” reach, which allows for wheelchair clearances under the sink.

Q: Why exactly should ergonomics be considered when designing a lab?

Ken Mohr: Considering human factors when designing a laboratory is no different than the scientific impact on the space, accommodating the right number of staff working in the laboratory, and providing the right type of infrastructure to support laboratory equipment and instrumentation. The goal is to prevent soft tissue injuries and musculoskeletal disorders caused by sudden or sustained exposure to force, vibration, repetitive motion, and awkward posture. To create an ergonomically sound work environment, NIOSH ergonomists and industrial hygienists recommend designing tasks, workspaces, controls, displays, tools, lighting, and equipment to fit each employee’s physical capabilities and limitations. As design professionals in this industry, we work to create a universal environment that is generally acceptable by all while addressing the special needs of ADA.