Preventing MSDs in the world’s deepest clean science lab

Nov 19, 2018

Preventing MSDs in the world's deepest clean science labWSPS Ergonomic Specialist Tanya Muller's work with SNOLAB, a world-class science laboratory specializing in neutrino and dark matter physics, required her to descend two kilometres underground in total darkness, walk another 1.5 kilometres through an underground tunnel just to reach the worksite, and then proceed through a comprehensive decontamination process.

Located in Vale's Creighton Mine near Sudbury, Ontario, SNOLAB is the planet's deepest, cleanest underground laboratory. Sounds otherworldly, but are the hazards really so different from any other workplace? Learn more about Tanya's experience, and the musculoskeletal disorder (MSD) hazards faced by laboratory staff. (Photo: Tanya, second from left, in conversation with Snolab employees.)

The opportunity

MSD injuries account for 43% of all lost-time claims and 46% of all lost-time days.* These injuries - painful and often debilitating - occur in every industry. Risk factors include forceful exertions, repetitive movement, and awkward postures (e.g., lifting, bending and reaching).

Tanya was brought on site to help SNOLAB incorporate MSD prevention into its existing processes, including JHSC inspections, hazard identification, engineering design, and task analyses. Everyone from the cleaning crew to the directors took part in what was essentially an exercise in participatory ergonomics. Actively involving all workers increases their collective understanding of MSD hazards, ensures better, more feasible solutions are developed, helps them apply safer work practices that reduce the risk of MSDs, and promotes hazard reporting.

The process

After delivering MSD awareness training to groups of employees, Tanya introduced each group to simple assessment tools, and then worked with them to identify and assess actual MSD hazards and devise practical, cost-effective solutions.

Groups were encouraged to assess actual tasks performed in the lab. Some were unique; others were common to any workplace. All featured common MSD risk factors. Here are three task examples:

  • pushing 'dewars' to various locations in the lab. These large compressed gas cylinders are on wheels and must be pushed to and from the various experiments that are located "uphill" from the lab entrance. Not all wheels are in good condition due to the stress of transporting them underground.
  • storing 18-litre jugs for water dispensers. The jugs are placed in crates and stacked sideways on a tram to be brought down into the mine. At the lab site, staff must lift the jugs off the tram, clean them, and store them on racks and under a staircase.
  • cleaning. A full-time cleaning crew dusts surfaces, vacuums and mops floors, and washes laundry all day long - a necessity of the cleanliness process. Before anyone enters the lab, they must remove their clothing, shower, and don clothes and coveralls provided by the lab. This clothing is later washed, folded and shelved.

"Working in groups brought together people with a range of responsibilities and expertise," says Tanya. "It helped them take a fresh look at the workplace, better understand the potential hazards, and come up with practical, cost-effective solutions. Going forward, they have the skills to apply what they've learned to any new task."

How WSPS can help

  1. Check out our comprehensive selection of MSD downloads, e-courses, and training opportunities.
  2. Read about a new MSD prevention guideline featuring checklists, policies and other tools for workplaces of all sizes.
  3. Explore WSPS' full range of solutions for businesses in Northern Ontario.
  4. Watch a short video about WSPS' work with SNOLAB.

* "Prevent Workplace Pains & Strains! It's time to take action," Ontario Ministry of Labour, www.labour.gov.on.ca/english/hs/pubs/ergonomics/is_ergonomics.php