This article sets out recommendations for the design of office workstations which will help prevent work-related health problems.
Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSD) are characterised by discomfort, impairment, disability, or persistent pain in the joints, muscles, tendons or other soft tissues. They are the most common self-reported, work-related illness in many workplaces. High incidence rates for WMSDs have been reported for workers in a wide range of industries including office work, manufacturing, agriculture and numerous manual materials' handling occupations.
WMSD can result in direct costs, such as compensation and medical expenditure, as well as indirect costs such as disruption in productivity and quality, worker replacement costs, training and absence costs. It has become a major concern because of the negative impact on the health and productivity of employees and is therefore a significant problem for both employers and workers to pay attention to.
As many of us spend a significant amount of time on our personal computers at work, good ergonomics at the workplace is critical. By learning the proper way to handle and use office equipment, we will be able to prevent undesirable health problems such as headaches, neck and shoulder pain.
WMSD among office workers
In a recent study conducted by the Singapore General Hospital (SGH) on the prevalence of musculoskeletal disorders (MSD) among office workers in Singapore, it was found that 73.4% of the 324 respondents reported experiencing pain in at least one of the body parts. The body parts with the highest report of pain were neck (46%), shoulder (42%) and low back (42%). There was a higher prevalence of MSD in females (78.8%) compared to males (63.9%) and this was statistically significant (p=0.003).
Causes of WMSD
Some of the possible causes of the high prevalence of aches and pains among office workers include both physical workload and the environment they work in. There are various factors that may affect these conditions. A substantial amount of research has provided evidence of associations between musculoskeletal disorders and certain work-related factors such as vibration, posture, force and repetition. In an office environment, poor posture and the prolonged sedentary work seem to be the key factors. Poor design and layout of workstations can aggravate the awkward postures adopted by workers. Besides these physical factors, psycho-social factors such as job satisfaction and mental stress may influence the report of WMSD.
Shoulder elevation, trunk flexion, and low back not supported when using the laptop computer were some of the awkward postures adopted by office workers. Awkward postures, often aggravated by poorly designed workstations, can increase the risk of people getting WMSD which can be very painful and sometimes permanently disabling. The disorder can interfere with all aspects of daily life. Sometimes even the simplest household chores, hobbies and social events can become unmanageable. Financial costs can also be severe. Employers can experience costs in a variety of ways such as lost time at work, medical treatment and disability cost.
Hence, it is important to have workstations that are well designed for the users and the intended tasks to be performed.
The main components of an office workstation include the desk, chair and the equipment used to perform the office task, often a computer. When designing a workstation, it is important that you consider the tasks that have to be performed, and the type of equipment used. Flexibility is the key in workstation design.
Posture and movement
The way the workstation is designed affects the posture that one adopts while working. Therefore, the workstation should be designed to place the person in the best position to enable him/her to perform the work in comfort. To assist us in designing offices that fit our local population, a Code of Practice for Office Ergonomics was published in November 2005.