The importance of ergonomics for hygienists—and what dentists can do to help


Hygienists put their bodies through a lot of wear and tear on the job, but there are steps that can be taken to help prevent some of the damage. Here's what one hygienist thought dentists should know.

Sometimes, readers are interviewed for these articles. In this edition, a retired dental hygienist talks about the things dentists would know about ergonomics and hygienists.

I have worked in three dental practices and have seen the same thing over and over: None of the dentists would buy new equipment.

We always had to sharpen the instruments, but they needed to be replaced sometimes. Since the dentists refused to do so, we had to grip the instruments harder when working on the patients. The blades became dull. This was so much harder on my hands. The result (for me and I expect many of my peers) is that we developed carpal tunnel. Many of my friends retired because of carpal tunnel. But me… I would rather not have pain-and have my paycheck!

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You ask what could be different to prevent the physical problems as a result of being a dental hygienist. Here are my thoughts…

1. Get ergonomic chairs for the hygienist.

At the time, they cost $500. None of my dentists would spend the money on them for us. We could get it if we paid for it, but I couldn’t afford it.

2. Get magnifying loops.

These started at $1,500 so you don’t have to bend over so much.

3. Get an ergonomic scaler. These have bigger handles which mean you don’t have to clench your hands so much.

We work in a tight space-the mouth. At times, it is a real challenge to keep the mouth open. We also have some challenges with our obese patients. At times, I had to stand or change my body position in order to do my job. This isn’t really good for my back or health.

Sometimes, we have to stand up for wheelchair patients. There are also patients who don’t want to lie back in the chair as they feel like they are out of control. It is too much for them with the light shining on their face, tubes, people there and feeling like they are sliding back in the chair. Then, there are the elderly who are fearful of falling. These are the hidden challenges in trying to do my job that I didn’t expect. Let’s face it: The patient dictates the way I am going to set them up for a cleaning.

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My peers seem to stop being a hygienist at the age of 40. The problem is that there is nowhere to go in this industry if you have to stop due to arthritis or carpal tunnel.

We aren’t doing enough to help hygienists last longer in this field. Proper equipment is critical. Having a safe environment where you can make suggestions and be taken seriously is crucial. 

I interviewed this hygienist, because her message is so important for managers, dental specialists and dentists to hear. My call to action is for you to take a look at what happens in your practice. Talk to the staff. Find out ways to be ergonomically smart. Protect your employees. Be problem solvers and don’t dispose of employees so quickly. Email me at with your stories of what happens in your practice. Just know that you aren’t alone and that you do have a voice at the table.

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