Contemporary vast strides in technology largely benefit our lives. On the other hand, they produce adverse impacts mainly on our health since many high-tech gadgets such as computers, TVs and mobile phones have caused an increase in non communicable diseases (NCDs) in Sri Lanka.
Musculoskeletal pains have become the leading reason for adults to seek hospital outpatient department consultations. There is evidence to decide that such aches have origins in childhood. Mismatched environmental parameters with body requirements may have contributed to these outcomes. Negative effects of mismatched ergonomics include musculoskeletal pain, general tiredness, postural changes or spinal deformities as well as psychological problems
Recent studies have shown that sitting long hours in front of computers and TVs can result in backaches and nearsightedness. It deprives people of much needed exercise. This in turn leads to obesity and overweight. Studies have also shown that constantly listening to loud music or talking for hours on mobile phone can cause hearing problems.
To resolve the high-tech related health problems, an evolving specialty known as Ergonomics has now entered the healthcare field. In Sri Lanka an Expert Committee on Ergonomics was formed under the Sri Lanka Medical Association (SLMA) to introduce ergonomics to the local medical community, general public and healthcare settings.
Ergonomics Expert Committee Consultant Community Physician and Chairman, Dr. Kapila Jayaratne explained to The Nation objectives of the committee and its future goals while sharing some of its experiences especially concerning schoolchildren.
Q. What is Ergonomics?
Ergonomics is the scientific study of people and their work. It helps improve human performance and finds solutions to health and safety problems. A matched ergonomic arrangement at any workplace is essential for gaining better human performance. The use of ergonomics is relevant in every type and size of work place. Traditionally, ergonomics was focused on factories, offices and similar adult environments, as ergonomics was relevant in all workplaces irrespective of their type and size.
Q. What about Sri Lanka?
There have been several fragmented approaches focused on ergonomics such as Occupational Safety and Health (OSH), ergonomics for children, healthy schoolbag campaign and healthcare facility ergonomics.
Q. Any studies in this respect especially in schoolchildren’s health?
Yes. In 2007 we conducted a research study on 1607 schoolchildren and came to the conclusions that many children experience discomfort due to sub-standard seating arrangements in the classroom. Other findings include a significant proportion had to turn their necks to see the blackboard, a majority of children perceived discomfort due to mismatched classroom furniture, gross deficiencies with schoolbags in weight, model, ergonomic features and the way the schoolchildren carry them, and children experience several negative effects such as musculoskeletal pain attributable to mismatched ergonomic factors.
Q. Any remedial action for the research findings?
Findings of this study and follow-up activities highlight that the ergonomic parameters related to classroom could be improved through simple changes. Nearly four million schoolchildren will benefit with this project. We can change thinking of an entire nation. However, since change of classroom furniture would involve a substantial financial cost for over four million schoolchildren, we considered that issues related to schoolbags should be given priority. It was contemplated to reduce bag-weight, introduce a health-friendly bag model and to change the way the children carrying bags.
Q. What is this healthy schoolbag project?
For developing a model of a healthy schoolbag, we first obtained inputs from the International Ergonomic Association and experts’ consultations. A sample bag designed on the ergonomic principle was developed locally and approved by the Australian Chiropractic Association. The features of the bag include size compatible with the body size, padded back wall, wide and padded shoulder straps and waist belt.
The Sri Lanka Standards Institute was consulted for physical quality assurance and the sample bag was evaluated by experts, teachers and children. A regulatory committee was established to monitor implementation of healthy schoolbag campaign. One of the principal researchers also wrote on healthy schoolbag and ergonomic behavior to use them for the grade eight science textbook to raise awareness among schoolchildren and their teachers.
Q. Your plans for the future with ergonomics in the healthcare field?
SLMA is the apex professional body in the Sri Lanka’s medical field. With the Expert Committee on Ergonomics (ECE), our objectives include, to function as the umbrella body in promoting ergonomics, to map and collate evidence in ergonomics and health consequences and to synthesize and disseminate new knowledge on ergonomics. We plan to introduce ergonomically-designed classroom as a pilot project.
SLMA-ECE Consultant Community Physician and member, Dr. Mahendra Arnold emphasized the importance of Ergonomics on occupational health.
Q. How serious is the problem of occupational health hazards in Sri Lanka?
The statistics are misleading. It is said that 3,000 to 4,000 people get injured at the work place but the actual numbers are much higher. It is also said that 30 to 40 deaths occur due to occupational hazards. Then again, the numbers are grossly understated.
Because employers won’t report them since they have to pay compensation to the workers and workers don’t report their injuries fearing that they lose their jobs. It’s a vicious cycle.
Q. What about legislative provisions?
In the labor sector the provisions for workers are very poor. In the health sector no provisions to specify the cause of accidents that happen at the workplace. So there are many loopholes employers can use to neglect their responsibility.
Q. What about Public Health Inspectors? Don’t they visit the worksites and ensure that they are worker-friendly places?
The whole island has only 21 district factory engineers. They are expected to visit each factory and see to the safety of the equipment the employees use and the conditions they work in. Can this handful of people cover the whole country? It is impossible. Other gaps include insufficient trained staff in occupational health both in the health and the labor sectors. We have only 1900 Public Health Inspectors to serve the entire island. In urban areas, some PHI’s have to cover a population between 20,000 and 30,000. We also lack of a policy on Occupational Health in the health sector.
Q. What about the Occupational Health Safety Act?
Though this has been drafted five years ago, it still has to be implemented. It is an ideal Act drawn up by the Labor Department with experts in all the fields. The current Factory Ordinance is very outdated as it was introduced in 1945. Thereafter, only a few amendments have been made to