Basic Microscope Ergonomics

Microscopes have always been an integral part of the laboratory and thus medicine in general.

Long term and frequent sessions with microscopes in the past and in some cases today have resulted in problems for technicians and scientists using the instruments.

To be well able to view the specimens and hence record accurate data, the technician has to assume a position that is not only unusual, but also challenging.  

This involves bending their heads over the eye tubes and the upper part of the body bent forward, hand reaching higher up so as to focus and their wrists bent in a position that is not natural.

It is due to this awkward positioning that places them at risk for musculoskeletal disorders (MSDS). To avoid these injuries, there are a number of steps that a technician can follow. This will help each part of the body involved to avoid the injuries.  

Of course, this applies to the avid hobbyist and student as well.

Correct Body Positioning

The eyes- the eyepieces should always rest just below natural eye level so that the eyes are always looking downwards at a 30 degree to 45 degree angle above the horizontal.

Moreover, the interpupillary distance of the eyepieces of the microscope has to be adjusted in a manner that will allow both eyes to focus comfortably.  

Neck -the neck should be bent as little as possible. Today, there are microscopes such as the Nikon Smz10 stereomicroscopes with ergonomic attachments that help the technician to avoid bending the neck too much, and thus avoiding neck injuries.

The neck should be bent at an angle that is no more than 10 to 15 degree below the horizontal.  

Back- to avoid hurting the back, a good microscope should be used that will allow the technician to sit in an upright position and leaning the entire body slightly forward.

In this case, the shoulder blades and the lower back will be supported by the chair or the lumber support cushion. By sitting for long periods, undue strain is placed on the back, but can be alleviated through proper support.  

Arms and wrist- the position of the arms should be such that, the upper arms are perpendicular to the floor, the elbows are close to the body, and not sticking or winged out, the forearms are parallel to the floor and the wrists are straight.  

Legs- the feet have to rest firmly on the floor or a footrest, and pressure is applied by the chair to the back of the thighs.   

In order to significantly reduce ergonomic risk factors, the technician should; 

o   Develop an awareness posture. This should be done so as to maintain a natural curve of the lower back while sitting where necessary, additional lumbar support should be used.  

o   Where the foot ring on a stool is too low, it should be raised so as to keep the lower back supported by the chair back.

Typically,  the underneath of the workbench/station in laboratory are sometimes used as storage facilities for a number of equipment and supplies.

To avoid impeding the legs, this area should be cleared to allow free space for the legs while seated. 

o   While looking through the microscope, one should avoid leaning forward, but adjust the position of the seat instead.

This can also be achieved by adjusting the position of the workstation or microscope to ensure that the head remains upright and the back is straight. Moreover, the eyepiece should be in line with, or simply extended over the edge of the laboratory bench. 

o   In a case where the microscope is too low for use, the technician should try and raise it up by modifying the configuration using the original equipment manufacturer (OEM) or through the use of aftermarket accessories to keep the head in an upright position.

On the other hand, a book can be placed underneath to raise the microscope higher. 


According to research, it was shown that over 80 percent of the employees who use a microscope for more than 5 hours per day report job related musculoskeletal pain in the head, neck, lower back, and arms. 

Therefore it is important to be aware and understand the number of factors that result in such injuries particularly the type of microscope, body positions and the general habits of use. 

There are a number of steps that a technician can follow to ensure that they avoid these pains, which can be bring about the complication of a more serious injury in the future. Moreover, it is also important to protect the eyes by taking short and regular breaks. 

Of interest:  Cleaning your microscope - Discussing Best Practices

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Erin E. Wilson and Michael W. Davidson - National High Magnetic Field Laboratory, 1800 East Paul Dirac Dr., The Florida State University, Tallahassee, Florida, 32310. 

H. Haines & L. Mcatamney, July 1993. Microscopy and Analysis: Applying ergonomics to improve microscopy work. Pages 15-17

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