A researcher’s workspace and work environment can positively, or negatively, affect their personal well-being. In turn, the research they collect can be inadvertently corrupted or inaccurate if fatigue or distraction is present. Protecting researchers and staff from injuries and stress caused by their ergonomic interaction with workbenches, workstations, task chairs, stools, maker tables, carts, lighting, and more is the essence of effective, proactive ergonomics.
Ergonomics is the study of how people systematically interact with their habitat or environment. This environment must foster collaboration, innovation, and enhance their overall performance.
Designers: Walking in the researcher’s shoes (and spaces)
No matter how savvy an interior designer’s ergonomic-driven design is, if it is not inspired by input from actual users—researchers and staff—its value is limited. Designers must meet with scientists and other user groups early on, well before pen touches paper in predesign, to intimately observe and understand lab workers’ daily tasks, travel paths, and overall workflow. Without this detailed understanding, any design produced will lack the very essence of successful ergonomics. Without seeing and knowing exactly how and where lab inhabitants’ function and when, the odds of any ergonomics-driven design will fall short.
Sharing information about daily tasks performed in, to, and from the lab space is a vital conversation that designers and scientists must have early in the process. Discussions of what’s working and what isn’t working in the existing lab space, potential workplace hazards, inefficiencies, and space needs should all be part of a two-way discussion between those who will design the lab and those who will use it. This dialogue should also include suggestions for how daily lab-centric tasks could be performed in a more efficient, productive manner. At this juncture, designers and engineers may present research and data from previous lab design projects, articulating lessons learned and providing innovative solutions that can positively impact the lab’s ergonomic design.
Design inspired by ergonomics
Beyond aligning a task with a person, rather than vice versa, a successful ergonomics strategy decreases fatigue and prevents injuries while improving productivity, safety, and job satisfaction. A successful ergonomic design will keep laboratory occupants comfortable, working efficiently, and support physical and mental health and happiness.
How can ergonomic laboratory design contribute to the productivity and well-being of researchers over the long term and enable employers to retain their best scientists? It’s the result of a visual and functional strategy that supports the way lab occupants work—or the optimal way they’d like to function in their space.
In short, successful ergonomics enables researchers to concentrate throughout the workday on discovery, free from the distractions of space inefficiencies and limitations. Here is an overview of aspects to recognize in the design of the space:
Specify appropriate materials and furniture
Laboratory furniture manufacturers play a crucial role in any successful lab design or redesign effort. Selecting a shortlist of quality manufacturers of lab workstations, benches, maker tables, carts, and lighting spells the difference between successful design versus ineffectively designed spaces that do not achieve users’ goals. Working with forward-thinking manufacturers that understand the importance of safety and productivity in their own designs is essential. Manufacturers that are adept in navigating the ever-complex supply chain hurdles can make the project come to fruition on schedule.
Identifying appropriate materials on the surfaces of ergonomic-friendly lab furniture is another crucial facet of ergonomic lab design that designers and users need to master. Chemical-resistant, scrub-resistant, impact-resistant, antimicrobial materials are necessary. Bolder colors in strategic areas of the lab to spur stimulation and attentiveness are key, as are materials that provide the appropriate degree of acoustics.
See the (natural) light
Evidence-based data1 proves that natural light, or daylighting, is good for staff members’ well-being. Today’s labs are being designed with views to the outdoors rather than being situated on the inner core of the building. Daylighting not only saves energy, but it also provides a working environment that stimulates creativity and innovation. Daylighting can also help with recruiting and retention of staff.
Lighting levels are also extremely important in ergonomically inspired design. Providing dimming capabilities and appropriate color temperatures for researchers aids in reducing eye fatigue from working long hours in the lab.
Design and specify furniture and equipment within reach
Height-adjustable benches and workspaces allow for easy access and an ergonomic approach to tools and tasks. Casework that promotes healthy reach heights is also a lab design must. Providing seating that is adjustable for multiple tasks and positions is essential. Organizing workstations for proper circulation and flow throughout the space contributes toward successful lab design with ergonomics top of mind. Lab layout should promote collaboration between staff members while allowing for easy access to amenities.
Create safety-inspired ergonomic design that reduces injuries
According to OSHA, there are many ergonomic risk factors that cause wear and tear on the body and bear the potential of causing injury. These include repetition, awkward posture, forceful motion, stationary position, direct pressure, vibration, extreme temperature, noise, and work stress. To counteract these risk factors, design should accommodate and support job rotation, warm-up stretching and stretch breaks, proper reaching, lifting, and handling techniques, and more.
Examples of such ergonomic-forward lab safety design accommodations are chairs that provide good back support, adjust easily for workstation height and allow for forward tilting when necessary; adaptable/adjustable benches and workstations to allow workers to keep shoulders relaxed and elbows close to their sides while working; furniture arrangement that discourages repetitive or forceful twisting and turning motions; workstation padding that softens edges and reduces pressure and force while working; and stools with footrests, where appropriate, to relieve back pressure.
Design space to attract, retain lab workers
The advantages of creating good ergonomics in lab design are abundant. Beyond the increased savings realized through a reduction in worker injuries, fewer workers’ compensation claims, and increased productivity, ergonomic-forward design increases the morale of individuals and teams. Employees feel valued because their workplace is safer. Without discomfort, pain, or injury as a distraction, safe work environments stimulate productivity. Increased morale and increased safety often lead to overall job satisfaction. Overall job satisfaction translates into reduced turnover, which spells workforce continuity.
Designing a lab space that promotes health, productivity, worker satisfaction, and morale is an investment in people, processes, and outcomes. Ergonomics is the science of matching work environments to fit the physiological, psychological, and cognitive capabilities of the worker. While it’s not possible to eliminate hazards in the workplace, a successful, doable ergonomics strategy can identify and minimize the researcher’s exposure to them.
1. International Journal of Advances in Chemical Engineering & Biological Sciences (IJACEBS) Vol. 3, Issue 1 (2016) ISSN 2349-1507 EISSN 2349-1515; Natural Light and Productivity: Analyzing the Impacts of Daylighting on Students’ and Workers’ Health and Alertness.