Companies are getting health-care professionals to help workers get the right posture and evaluate workplace ergonomics to reduce aches and injuries
When Ms Jennifer Liaw visited the home office of a 45-year-old client two years ago, she saw right away what was causing him chronic neck and back pain. The senior principal physiotherapist at Singapore General Hospital (SGH) said: “His chair was so low that he had to hitch up his shoulders. This compressed the joints in his neck and upper back and caused pain.” His keyboard and mouse were placed to the right so he had to twist his body to use them, causing further strain to his neck and back, she added. And his monitor was so low he had to incline his head to look at it. She advised him to put a stack of printer paper under the monitor to raise it and move his keyboard and mouse to the centre. She also advised him to adjust his chair to make it higher.
As office workers spend increasingly longer hours in front of their computer screens, more are needing the services of health-care professionals like Ms Liaw, who offers ergonomics consultation to both individuals and companies. She is one of a handful – but a growing number – of physiotherapists and occupational therapists here with post-graduate degrees in the field.
Ergonomics looks at how to improve the design of workstations or poor work habits such as bad sitting postures so the body does not suffer unnecessary strain. During a site visit, the ergonomist spends 10 to 20 minutes with each worker, correcting postures or giving advice on how to improve workstations. An hour’s consultation involving four workstations typically costs between $100 and $200. Companies may also request recommendations for changes at company level, such as providing document holders so employees do not have to strain their necks looking repeatedly from the screen to documents on the desk. Doctors specialising in occupational health also provide workplace ergonomics consulting services.
SGH and Changi General Hospital got the ball rolling with such consulting services about 10 years ago. Services include giving talks and workshops to company workers on basic ergonomics and onsite evaluations of individual workstations. Now, other public hospitals such as National University Hospital and private outfits like Physiotherapy Associates and Raffles Hospital are doing likewise. At least 10 private companies offer workplace ergonomics consultation by qualified professionals, up from just a handful a decade ago, said Mr Yogesh Tadwalkar, who chairs the non-profit Ergonomics Society of Singapore. Hospitals said they had gone into this field because they were seeing more patients with aches and pains as a result of poor ergonomics at work, especially office work. An SGH study done in 2005 showed that seven in 10 office workers here suffer from back, shoulder and neck pains. The service lets health-care professionals play a more active role in preventing workers from developing these aches and pains, said Ms Liaw from SGH.
SGH provides consultation to about 40 companies a year, mostly office-based multinational companies, although more local companies are now also asking for the service. That number has stayed constant, even with more players in the market now. Improving workplace ergonomics has been receiving attention in many developed countries in recent years, as evidence is emerging that poor ergonomics affects workers’ health and productivity, said Ms Ng Lih Yen, principal physiotherapist at Khoo Teck Puat Hospital.
More firms here are aware of the need to improve workplace ergonomics, hence creating a demand for such consultants. Although it is not known how much losses are suffered in productivity in companies here because of poor ergonomics, the Government is nonetheless promoting workplace ergonomics, and not only in heavy industry and manufacturing. In 2005, the national standards body Spring Singapore published a Code Of Practice For Office Ergonomics, which states standards, such as ideal desk heights (70cm), among other things. Companies can also tap on funds such as the Manpower Ministry’s Risk Management Assistance Fund to evaluate the user-friendliness and safety of their workplaces. When the Workplace Safety and Health Act is expanded this month to include all workplaces, including schools and offices, the demand for ergonomics consulting services will definitely go up further, said Mr Yogesh.
Under the Act, employers must take measures to keep the workplace safe. The Manpower Ministry conducts regular checks to make sure they do. Companies found to have safety lapses can be fined up to $500,000 while individuals can be fined up to $200,000, jailed two years or both. Stop-work orders can also be issued. For instance, employers need to carry out a risk assessment and if certain risks, such as repetitive stress injuries, in its workers are identified, they need to implement measures to minimise these dangers. It is helpful to workers to have a one-on-one workplace evaluation, said Ms Diana Lee, an employee at multinational firm Chevron. This helped her find out that she needed a lower desk. Chevron has a robust repetitive stress injury prevention programme for its 1,000 Singapore employees which was started a few years ago. But the United States-based energy giant appears to be an exception among employers here.
Hospitals which offer workplace ergonomics consulting services say most of their office-based companies, unlike industrial-based companies, do not request for repeat visits, thinking that one visit or consultation is enough to work magic. But like all bad habits, bad postures take time to correct and it helps when employers put in place a regular ergonomics programme.
Yet employers still view office work as less hazardous than industrial or manual work and do not think such a programme is necessary. But the evidence is to the contrary. Ms Liaw said data from the US and Australia in the last decade has shown that firms with a regular ergonomics programme have more satisfied and productive employees. They are less likely to take medical leave due to work-related aches and pains. For example, a US study found that absenteeism fell from 4 per cent to 1 per cent after workstation design changes were implemented and productivity was judged as “much improved”.