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Designing a more productive laboratory.

If technologists were heard before architects drew up the blueprints, many labs might look very different. The arrangement of work space and instrumentation would make job performance easier and more efficient.

Too often, the staff works in an environment that hinders rather than helps performance. Some laboratories are laid out as tempting shortcuts for hospital traffic, with work flow subject to constant interruptions by physicians, phlebotomists, and others. Technologists are often resigned to the frustration of working at counters that are too high or too low, shuttling between inconveniently located instruments, constantly clearing away clutter to make room for new tasks, and hunting for needed worksheets and specimens.

The wonders of high technology don't necessarily compensate for these problems. Productivity gains from advanced automation are reduced if physical design lags behind the new instrumentation. Instruments themselves can handicap their operators, and that includes some sophisticated models supposedly designed to prevent mental and physical fatigue.

For instance, an analyzer should ideally permit all operating tasks to be performed at one level--either sitting or standing. Time and energy are wasted if an operator must sit down to enter data, pick up specimens, and stand up to load them on the opposite side of the instrument.

Operational analysis, which is the research that business and industry conduct to improve workplace efficiency, can provide useful guidelines for the lab setting. This goal-oriented approach takes every aspect of design into the planning process. One outstanding example of its efficiency potential is the McDonald's fast-food production system. "The only choice available to the attendant" in the system, according to one commentator, "is to operate it exactly as the designers intended."

Is it outrageous to compare laboratory operations to hamburger production? Not from the standpoint of cost efficiency and productivity. Few workplace design problems are isolated; most require a network of interrelated solutions. And, since most workers are strongly inclined to perform jobs in a certain way out of habit, a total design system--like McDonald's--is the best way to insure adherence to new methods and designs.

Here are four of the most basic tenets in analyzing and planning laboratory design.

* Plan facilities with people in mind. You might call this engineering for the human factor--studying the physical demands of a task to minimize effort and maximize comfort. Another name for this discipline is ergonomics, from the Greek words for work and law. Originally, ergonomics referred to making the worker conform to the job; now, it means just the opposite.

Some laboratories, however, still seem determined to fit the worker to the environment, no matter how adversely this might affect morale and performance. Take, for example, a counter or benchtop too low to stand at without slumping, yet impossible to sit at because of drawers that run its full length.

Abundant drawers are always handy, unless they keep a busy technologist from sitting comfortably. The excess drawers are usually underused anyway. In the laboratory as in the home, we tend to keep most things of value in a few convenient spots.

What would an ergonomically designed counter space look like? Ideally, the height of the work area would permit sitting or standing in equal comfort. In either position, the technologist would be at the same height in proportion to the counter. A footrest platform (Figure I) makes this feasible.

These may seem like minor subtleties, but consider the ergonomic differences built into an economy and a luxury model car. In a luxury car, you don't need to lift your foot to move it from the gas pedal to the brake. Research indicates this small difference is important, and many consumers are willing to pay more for the extra comfort and convenience.

* Simplify work for economy of motion. In other words, determine the best work method for every job. Management authors Frank and Lillian Gilbreth observed workers closely to identify the basic physical elements of job performance, then developed some principles of motion efficiency.

The researchers ranked body motions from the simplest to the most complex and, therefore, the most fatiguing. These five levels involve: finger motion only; finger and wrist; finger, wrist, and lower arm; finger, wrist, lower and upper arm; and all the above plus body motion.

The idea is to design work stations and instruments in a way that requires the least motion. Obviously, a technologist tires more easily when the whole body must be maneuvered to complete a task, as when instrument controls are located right at the edge of a counter. This fatigue lessens when counter space is deep enough to allow for simpler arm and hand motions. Ergonomically designed counter space, in fact, tends to be deeper than usual, as shown in Figure II. Deep counter space also eases eye strain by making the entire work situation readily observable at a glance.

The second key to motion efficiency is the arrangement of the workplace. One prime rule is as simple as that old adage: "A place for everything, and everything in its place." When this common-sense advice is ignored, medical technologists spend a large portion of their time just looking for supplies. The problem worsens when several people work at the same area, since we all tend to stash tools and materials in our own favorite corners.

Bringing the work to the worker is another technique to boost efficiency. Technologists who must pick up specimens from various locations lose time in transit. Any number of ingenious solutions can streamline workload distribution, from old-fashioned dumbwaiter systems to centrally located work station turnstiles loaded with specimen racks, a concept shown in Figure III.

Finally, good planning for motion economy should relieve the hands of any work that can be accomplished by the feet. It's easier for a technologist to move a wheeled chair with leg power instead of picking up the chair and lugging it to another area. This kind of mobility makes it possible to work on several instruments at the same time. Wraparound counter space makes for an even more efficient arrangement as shown in Figure IV.

* Utilize space for maximum efficiency. Lay out work areas to discourage unnecessary traffic through the laboratory. A central hub is the most convenient location for specimen receiving and processing. Figure V shows a basic layout of work areas to meet these needs. Various stations cluster around a central receiving station, and traffic flow doesn't interfere directly with technologist work areas. The front desk screens visitors and fields questions, and a series of turnstiles helps distribute work with a minimum of traveling.

* Balance workload among departments. Accurate workload recording data can serve as a basis for optimum allotment of testing among stations. The main goal of workload balancing is to avoid bottlenecks, backtracking, lost specimens, and other forms of confusion and wasted time.

Divide tests according to instrumentation, total daily volume, and required skill. Avoid instrument duplication whenever possible. For the most cost-effective use of labor, match testing as closely as possible to the technical skills of each staff member.

Technologists achieve a greater sense of task completion when test functions are combined into meaningful units. Liver or heart function tests, for example, can be performed in their entirely at one work station.

Of course, purely theoretical concepts of ergonomic design have little usefulness for most laboratories. In practice, successful design decisions often grow out of a process of trial and error.

We can reduce errors, however, by securing the involvement and cooperation of the laboratory staff. Participative decision-making paves the way for more ready acceptance of design changes, but it is more than good public relations. Bench-level technologists are the real, hands-on experts on workplace design. Their input in the planning stages can help point out a potential problem before it's set in concrete.

In short, foresight, careful planning, and teamwork belong in any blueprint for a more efficient laboratory.
COPYRIGHT 1985 Nelson Publishing
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Copyright 1985 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Author:Mayer, Roger W.
Publication:Medical Laboratory Observer
Date:Jul 1, 1985
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