The most dangerous job in the US is “logging worker,” according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS), which tracks workplace fatalities. Other fatal jobs include fishers, aircraft pilots, truckers, farmers and construction workers.1 Laboratory workers don’t make that list, thankfully, but healthcare cases of nonfatal injuries are among the highest of any industry – even when compared to agriculture and construction.2 The laboratory is still a dangerous place in some surprising ways.
As the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) states on its website, “More workers are injured in the healthcare and social assistance industry sector than any other.”3 In 2010, the BLS reported 23 percent more injuries in healthcare than manufacturing, with a total of 653,900 cases – a rate of 5.2 per 100 full-time workers. The highest number of cases occurred in hospitals.4 Everyday hazards related to laboratory work include:
– Blood borne pathogens and biological hazards: techs are routinely at risk of exposure to blood and body fluids from dozens to hundreds of samples every day in aerosols, on surfaces and in sharps or moving instrument parts than can cause skin punctures. Often it may be difficult to isolate a source.
– Chemical hazards: techs handle a variety of caustic chemicals, including hydrochloric and acetic acids, cleaning agents, etc. in almost every aspect of laboratory work, from sample preparation (adding formaldehyde to tissue samples) to instrument maintenance (soaking components in cleaning agents).
– Ergonomic hazards: techs work in a physical environment that involves sitting or standing for long periods of time while performing tasks that need a high degree of fine motor skills or visual acuity, often in constrained positions with inadequate or harsh lighting. Direct patient care puts techs at risk for musculoskeletal injuries related to patient handling. In hospitals, most safe patient handling is focused on other direct caregivers, such as nursing aides.
– Workplace violence: Like other professionals in direct contact with patients and other clients, laboratory workers are at risk for workplace violence, defined by OSHA as “any act or threat of physical violence, harassment, intimidation or other threatening disruptive behavior.” Like musculoskeletal injuries, violence related to patient contact may not be a focus for hospital laboratories. The BLS reported a greater than 13 percent increase in assaults in healthcare from 2009 to 2010.5
Laboratory workers may also be exposed to radiation, laser, respiratory and other hazards depending on specialization.
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Repetitive motion disorders (RMD) are a real possibility in any hands-on work – described by the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke as a family of muscular conditions including carpal tunnel syndrome, bursitis, tendonitis, epicondylitis, ganglion cyst, tenosynovitis and trigger finger. Symptoms include pain, tingling, numbness, swelling and a loss of function or strength. In time, these injuries can cause permanent damage to soft tissues.6 Most commonly, these occur in the hands, wrists, elbows and shoulders essential to fine motor control laboratory tasks, such as computer data entry, microscopic analysis and pipetting.
Pipetting is an especially common source of RMD in laboratories, with hand pain reported by 90 percent of people who pipette in continuous sessions of one hour or more.7 Pipettes vary in size, ease-of-use and the amount of thumb force needed to use them properly – all factors that should be considered when selecting a pipette for purchase. Symptoms may begin gradually or when off work, but, in time, can lead to permanent tissue damage like other RMDs.
Excessive noise can be another long-term hazard for laboratory workers. Symptoms include ringing or humming in the ears, temporary hearing loss or needing to shout to be heard. OSHA sets a permissible exposure limit (PEL) at 90 dBA (A-weighted decibel sound level) per eight hours with an exchange rate of 5 dBA. Thus, for every 5 dBA over 90 dBA, the exposure time is cut in half. Since 1981, employers in general industry have been required to implement a Hearing Conservation Program that includes free annual hearing tests and prevention.8
Noise adds up, with high speed motors, centrifuges, bells, radios and refrigerator compressors. Some comparative noise levels are listed in the Table. How much noise is too much noise? It’s difficult to say, but noise levels can be crudely measured using smartphone, apps such as Smart Tools9 and others. It’s not unexpected to find noise levels of 10-15 dB in hallways outside a laboratory and routine levels of 60-70 dB within.
While laboratories can’t be hazard free, workers can do plenty to raise awareness and mitigate risk. Here are three tips to get started today:
– Daily safety huddles: discuss as a group existing and possible hazards to raise awareness. Employers are required to provide protective equipment. Make sure the laboratory is aware of construction and other interim causes of excessive noise.
– Evaluate equipment: evaluating existing and future equipment and products should be ongoing. For example, techs should trial pipettes to be sure the design is easy to handle and requires minimal force.
– Take breaks: limit your time in constrained postures or areas where your movement is limited or uncomfortable, such as microscopic work. Frequent breaks should include stretching, standing and walking around to regain movement.