Banishing pain at work

Companies engage ergonomic experts to keep workers from suffering office-related pains and aches

A different set of safety checks was conducted at ST Logistics in April. While workers were seated in front of their computers, their postures were scrutinised in the following areas:

• Were their lower backs supported and their feet on the floor?

• Were their elbows at 90 degrees to the keyboard?

• Were their eyes level with the top of the computer screen?

An occupational health specialist from the Singapore Aeromedical Centrewas brought in to improve office ergonomics in the 100-strong corporate office. He corrected employees on their postures and prescribed props such as back rests, foot rests and laptop risers.

A study found that ergonomic-related workplace health problems cost Singapore $3.5 billion a year.

Getting an ergonomic expert into the workplace is getting more common.

Office ergonomics involves improving the design of workstations and educating workers on the right way to sit and interact with their workstations, so that their bodies do not suffer unnecessary strain.

The demand for such expertise is growing, health consultancies and centres say.

Dr Ng Wee Tong, a medical director for integrated workplace safety and health at Singapore Aeromedical Centre, under ST Healthcare, says a few years ago, only one or two companies consulted him for office ergonomics a year. Now, he sees about 10 companies a year.

Core Concepts Physiotherapy Group and Synergo Consulting have also seen a rise in demand in office ergonomics consultancy, from about five companies when they started, to about 15 to 20 new companies a year. Their services include giving talks and individual workstation assessments.

The Singapore General Hospital, which started offering this service in 2000, says it conducted nearly 30 talks, more than 20 workshops and about 10 consultations last year, twice as many as the year before.

Complaints of aches and pain are common among office workers, and companies are taking a preventive approach, instead of incurring losses in sick leave days and medical bills.

A study conducted by the Workplace Safety and Health Institute in 2011 showed that ergonomic-related workplace health problems such as stiff necks, strained backs and numb wrists cost Singapore $3.5 billion a year, equivalent to 1 per cent of its gross domestic product. In 2013, these "work-related musculoskeletal disorders" were the second most common source of occupational disease here.

Mr Yogesh Tadwalkar, founder and managing director of Synergo Consulting, says that small and medium-sized enterprises usually come forward only when a significant number of workers complain of pain or discomfort.

On the other hand, multinational corporations tend to seek these services more proactively.

Dr Ng of Singapore Aeromedical Centre says there is a widespread misconception that office ergonomics is expensive. Companies can just buy accessories such as a back extension, foot rest or laptop riser, which may cost between $250 and $300 a workstation.

ST Logistics, for example, invested $12,000 to make its corporate office in Clementi Loop more comfortable for its 100 office staff.

Dr Ng says that there is also a misconception that the effects of poor office ergonomics are not as serious as that of, for instance, poor ergonomics in manual work in warehouses. Those lead to musculoskeletal injuries, slipped discs and long periods of medical leave.

He says: "In the long run, poor office ergonomics could lead to debilitating musculoskeletal problems such as chronic back and neck ache and repetitive stress injury, which makes it difficult for a person to work to his optimal capacity."

Companies which have been practising ergonomics for a longer time believe in its benefits.

Integrated energy company Chevron says that over the last four years, none of its staff in the Asia Pacific region, including Singapore, has taken days away from work due to office-related back discomfort.

Since 2009, the company has hired a specialist to oversee an in-house ergonomics programme for Asia Pacific, including the more than 1,000 staff in Singapore, who use the computer for more than five hours a day.

Each workstation comprises a sit-stand adjustable desk, an adjustable chair, a monitor arm to adjust the monitor height, a keyboard which can be split into two and tilted to keep the wrist and forearms in a relaxed position, an ergonomic mouse and a headset.

All computers are installed with software which freezes the screen at regular intervals, forcing users to take breaks.

There is also a "Rapid Response Team" to provide advice to employees who experience discomfort.

Ms Malina Shamsudin, 34, a policy, government and public affairs manager, called the team last year when she experienced discomfort in her upper arm.

An in-house specialist found that she was gripping her mouse too tightly and prescribed a mouse with a larger surface area, which fits the size of her palm to enable a more relaxed grip.

She says: "I was also taught behavioural changes, such as letting go of the mouse when I am not using it. The discomfort in my upper arm has since disappeared."

Over at ExxonMobil Asia Pacific, employees who work from home can get assessments from the company's in-house ergonomic specialist.

The petrochemical giant also has an ergonomic equipment loan centre, where employees can borrow and try special equipment before requesting it.

Some employees have started their own initiatives. Supply manager Low Mun Cheng, 60, kick-started stretch breaks twice a day for his team at ExxonMobil's Pioneer Road office late last year. Since then, other departments have followed suit.

Diversified science company 3M has a comprehensive office ergonomics awareness programme, which includes training sessions, e-mail quizzes and talks.

Employees can also request add-ons to their workstations. For example, brand and strategy manager Jerilee Aw, 38, asked for a docking station, which comes with a separate monitor and keyboard, when she switched to using a laptop eight years ago.

She explains: "Looking at a monitor instead of a laptop is much easier on the eye."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline 'Banishing pain at work'. Print Edition | Subscribe