Think of your thumbs: the ergonomics of pipettes

Think of your thumbs: the ergonomics of pipettes

While Eppendorf considered clever ergonomic design as early as the 1970s, its importance has been fully realized in the modern lab. Eppendorf brought a wide range of products to market, including its first electronic pipette, that help provide a safer workspace with revolutionary speed, accuracy, and precision.

When most people think about health and safety in the laboratory, they are often taken with thoughts about volatile chemicals, infectious bacterial cultures, explosive substances and radiation exposure. Possibly less theatrical, but no less important, are the safety concerns associated with the humble pipette. Pipetting is one of the most common tasks in the modern research laboratory. On average, lab personnel spend two hours per day pipetting, equating to nearly 500 hours annually1,2. While accumulation of hundreds of hours of pipetting is associated with long term and chronic medical problems, ergonomic working conditions can significantly reduce risk as well as save on pipetting time.

Understanding ergonomics

The term ergonomics originates from the Greek "ergos" meaning "work" and "nomos" meaning natural law; translating more effectively as "the natural laws of work". Although ergonomics was initially employed during the industrial revolution, and focused on how to increase worker productivity3, attention has shifted towards how workplaces can be designed to better suit the people who use them. To achieve this, ergonomists must consider the stressors of the workplace.
Ergonomic stressors associated with pipette usage include thumb force, repetitive motions and awkward postures. At best, these can result in some minor discomfort but at worst, they can manifest as repetitive strain injuries (RSI)4. The benefit of good ergonomic design is manifold; offering lab workers less risk of injury and a more comfortable workspace while employers can benefit from increased productivity. In light of the ever-increasing demands on laboratory staff, it is more imperative than ever that the workplace environment is optimized to improve overall health and wellbeing.

Make the work fit the person, not the person fit the work

There are some simple things you, as the pipette user, can do to make your life in the laboratory more comfortable. Regular stretching, proper body position and exercise can help prevent the risk of developing an RSI. However, these practices can only go so far and choosing the right pipette is fundamental to ensuring a long and happy career at the bench.

Introduced in 1996: Combitips® plus in 9 different sizes to be used with the Multipette®

So, how do you choose the right ergonomic pipette? Naturally, the less you have to do the better. With this in mind, Eppendorf designed the Multipette® plus 4980 dispenser and corresponding Combitips® plus range of dispenser tips (now in nine different sizes) in 1996. Previously, the user was required to select the correct volume themselves, but the Multipette plus automatically recognizes the Combitips size and shows possible dispensing steps on the display. Shortly after, the Multipette pro was released in 1998 - the first electronic multi-dispenser in Eppendorf’s portfolio. Utilizing a motor-driven piston, the tips are filled and dispensed automatically. The benefits to lab personnel were quickly realized and the Multipette pro quickly became the model of choice for routine applications.

Eppendorf Research® pro pipettes pushed electronic pipette usability forward in 1998.

Requiring almost no operating forces, electronic pipettes have transformed laboratory work. The requirement to twist knobs to adjust the pipetting volume and press the plunger to dispense liquid has been taken away. Instead, only a simple push of a button is needed. With its Research pro line introduced in 1999, Eppendorf made an important move regarding electronic pipette usability, combining features to aid the handling of viscous liquids - such as aspirating/dispensing speed - with the ability to program pipetting sequences. The introduction of the epMotion® 5070 pipetting robot in 2003 took this several steps further offering a fully automated pipetting system.

Redefining efficient liquid handling since 2003: Eppendorf epMotion® pipetting robots

While these designs are fundamental to help improve usage and reduce injury risk, the benefits of electronic pipettes extend far beyond ergonomics. For instance, since electronic pipettes employ a motor to control piston movement, the exact volume will be aspirated and dispensed each time. Additionally, pipetting protocols can be pre-programmed and saved for later, further minimizing manual errors and preventing user-to-user variability. The latest handheld electronic device from Eppendorf comes in the form of the Eppendorf Xplorer® plus (2011) and combines all these features and more. It’s an extremely versatile tool, that offers multiple modes of operation to suit a variety of workflows and applications. It will even notify you when the next calibration is due.

One of the most iconic and successful pipettes of the world: the Eppendorf Research® plus

Although electronic pipettes have established themselves as essential tools in the modern-day laboratory, manual pipettes remain an indispensable part of many workflows. In line with a more thorough understanding of ergonomics, manual pipettes have become increasingly lighter and more easily usable with features like spring-loaded tip cones and better volume displays. Eppendorf’s esteemed Research® plus is a prime example and marked a great advance in ergonomic pipetting. Since its launch in 2009, the Research® plus has proven to be one of the most iconic and successful mechanical pipette models all over the world.

The PhysioCare Concept

As the demands of laboratory work have steadily increased, as have the improvements to the ergonomics of pipettes. The commitment to continual improvement to healthier workspaces is underscored by the launch of Eppendorf’s PhysioCare Concept® in 2003. This platform provides a holistic solution to defining a healthy workspace in terms of 3-spheres; the user, the lab and the laboratory workspace. Although this all begins with good ergonomic pipette design, Eppendorf has devoted time, effort and research into fully realizing the interplay between these 3-spheres so you – and your thumbs – can benefit from a healthier workspace, with minimal effort.

The 3-spheres of the Eppendorf PhysioCare Concept®. (1) The user sphere guarantees ergonomic design and product performance specific to the needs of the user. (2) The lab sphere addresses the interaction between user, equipment and consumables and how this interaction can be tailored to meet the requirements of the individual. (3) The workflow sphere examines how the arrangement of equipment and accessories at the workplace can be optimized with ergonomic design.

The future is now

Today, labs are going digital and pipettes are connected. Read more in the last part of our article series about the history and future of pipetting.

Read more here

1. Pipette Usage and Trends | The Scientist Magazine®.
2. Are you applying good pipetting practice? | Laboratory News.
3. History of Ergonomics | Sustainable Ergonomics Systems.
4. Eppendorf. Tenosynovitis, CTS and RSI – Medical Background, the Meaning for the Laboratory and Possible Prevention. (2012).

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