What resources are available to graduate students for musculoskeletal injury prevention in the workplace?

Date: June 2019


Dear Dean,

I have recently been reading about the importance of “office ergonomics” and the long term damage that can be caused by poor working conditions. As graduate students, even when our research is experimental in nature, we end up spending a lot of the time in our offices.

Some of my friends who have graduated and gone on to work in industry tell me how much importance their companies give to office ergonomics from day one. This is in stark contrast to what I have observed during my time in graduate school. The chairs are often several years old. The desks are, in most cases, outdated and don’t allow proper positioning of laptops. In many cases, people end up spending out of pocket to improve their workplaces (buying proper computer screens, improving chairs, etc.).

I understand that graduate student offices are primarily the responsibility of the PI, but I was wondering if the university provided any guidelines to ensure musculoskeletal injury prevention. I did a web search and landed on this page from Environmental Health and Safety, which states that Cornell University provides a Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention Program (MSIPP) to university employees.

My questions are:

1) Are there similar services available for graduate students?

2) If not, what resources are available to graduate students for musculoskeletal injury prevention in our workplace?

A concerned graduate student


Dear Concerned Graduate Student,

Thank you for your Ask a Dean question. I appreciate you raising an important issue for so many people at Cornell, especially because we spend much of our time in our offices. Because Cornell Health is the lead authority on human health for our campus, I reached out to my Cornell Health colleagues to help sort out what office ergonomics options exists specifically for our graduate students. Here are some of the details that they suggested ….

  • Cornell Health’s Physical Therapy (PT) Services can be helpful to students who are having pain as a result of ergonomic issues in their lab, office workstation, home set-up, or anywhere else. A physical therapist can help, not only with strategies for addressing the pain, but also with ideas about making adjustments so things don’t get worse and eventually can improve. Cornell Health PT Services is not staffed to be able to make onsite workplace assessments, but they are able to provide information, suggestions, and guidelines to assist students in making and/or requesting changes to the office workstation or lab facilities. A student can ask his/her health care provider for a PT referral, and self-referrals to Physical Therapy also are allowed. Check out this information available from Cornell’s PT services.
  • If you are seeking a formal assessment with the Musculoskeletal Injury Prevention Program, a graduate student can request this through their faculty advisor. In many cases, the MIPP team have gone into graduate student locations to conduct this analysis. A student may ask his/her faculty advisor to request this resource and explain the benefits of such an assessment to enhancing the graduate student’s experience.
  • If a graduate student has a documented disability/chronic health condition that impacts their access in the research setting and/or office workspace, they may qualify for disability services and/or accommodations. They can register with Student Disability Services (SDS) and SDS will work with them to determine what the access barriers are and appropriate accommodations to mitigate those. Depending on the disability/health condition, this could include SDS arranging for an ergonomic assessment of the student’s workspace, and the subsequent provision of any assistive aids, devices, or furniture needed to facilitate access. 

I hope that this gives you some clear options forward in helping to create more ergonomic friendly spaces for graduate students. 

Warm regards,


Barbara A. Knuth
Dean of the Graduate School