Quality of life matters - across the office

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 09 September, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 09 September, 2006, 12:00am

LOOK UP AT any Hong Kong office building after 8pm and you are sure to see the lights still blazing on almost every floor. Inside, workers will be hunched over their computers, suffering sore backs, stiff necks and eye strain as they try to meet the deadline or simply get the day's work done.

Their dedication may be good for company profits and the overall economy, but the fact is that too much time in badly designed office environments is taking a toll on the physical well-being of employees. This has highlighted the need for a better understanding and application of the basic principles of ergonomics, or the study of workplace design and the physical and psychological impact it has on workers.

Companies that neglect these principles are exposing their staff to unnecessary risk of injury and, perhaps, long-term ill health. Too often, companies fail to understand the importance of ergonomics, and too often the physical ailments of staff go unnoticed or, worse, are ignored.

In many cases, the problems that lead to persistent physical discomfort can be fixed by simply adopting and applying proper ergonomics.

In the United States, people suffer up to 1.8 billion injuries and illnesses a year as a result of poor ergonomic practices, according to the United Food and Commercial Workers, a US trade union. No parallel study has been completed for Hong Kong, but with many people here working more than 10 hours a day, one can speculate on the extent of the problem.

'Since the implementation of the Occupational Safety and Health (Display Screen Equipment) Regulation in May 2003, the situation has been steadily improving,' said Ravindra Goonetilleke, an ergonomics specialist and professor in the department of industrial engineering and logistics management at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology.

'However, Hong Kong is still not aware enough of the importance of ergonomics in the workplace. Especially today, where people are glued to their computers, it is more essential than ever,' Professor Goonetilleke said.

The implications are very practical and extend well beyond a check of physical surroundings and the suitability of office equipment. Specialists in the field also assess the cognitive and organisational aspects of the work environment.

When an ergonomics specialist is called in, he or she will start with the basics. These could range from assessing the level of repetitive movements that could be detrimental to the body's joints or muscles, checking for wrongly positioned computer screens, the adjustment and positioning of chairs and telephones, and so on. If not identified and fixed, negative factors can lead to problems that could turn chronic or serious over time.

A specialist in ergonomics will also take note of emotional grievances. These may result from poor in-house management or office politics, which can both have an impact on employee well-being.

Common ergonomic problems in the modern office environment range from nagging back pain caused by unsuitable chairs, eye strain and headache caused by long hours of staring at computer screens, and carpal tunnel syndrome, resulting from too much typing with the hands placed at a wrong angle. With care and foresight, such injuries can be prevented.

Thousands of Hong Kong people are tied to their workstations on a daily basis, but relatively little thought is given to individual needs and overall office design. Companies continue to install computers where glare from outside falls on the screen, and new staff are forced to inherit their predecessors' desks, chairs and monitors, regardless of their own size, shape and preferences.

The ergonomist takes all these factors into account when designing the ideal workplace. The guiding philosophy is to adjust the equipment to the person, not the other way around. The work environment should be customised to prevent recurring problems and the equipment should match the nature of the task.

A lack of awareness about ergonomics means that too many people are accepting physical strain and worsening eyesight as part of the job. Ergonomists believe more can be done to rethink workplace practices and make it easier for staff to carry out their daily work and perform effectively. The work environment should be conducive to achieving optimal results.

The International Ergonomics Association (IEA) is a federation of ergonomic societies from around the world. Its mission is to advance ergonomics science and practice. The Hong Kong Ergonomics Society (HKES), founded in 2000, seeks to educate the public and promote advances in ergonomics science. It works closely with its counterparts in the mainland and Taiwan.

The IEA organises a world congress every three years, the most recent being the conference held in Maastricht, in the Netherlands, in July. City University of Hong Kong student Fion Lee presented a paper at this congress.

HKUST's Professor Goonetilleke represented Hong Kong at the Maastricht congress and at the previous IEA congress held in Seoul in 2003. He was the only Hong Kong member of the international programme committee for the congress.

The next IEA congress will be held in Beijing in 2009, according to HKES general secretary Ida Yiu.

In May, the HKES held a seminar on 'Ergonomics and Public Health: International Initiatives to Promote Health among School-aged Children'. The speaker was Karen Jacobs, a professor from Boston University, in the US.

Hong Kong may not yet be at the forefront of worldwide ergonomics practices, but the efforts of the HKES and individuals such as Professor Goonetilleke of HKUST are helping to raise ergonomics awareness and offer solutions that can help to improve the quality of our working lives.