Breaking back: should ergonomics be a part of the Health and Safety Act?

28th Jun 2019 in All

poor ergonomic workstations lead to health problems

Sitting is not naturally human, as data suggests, but being forced to sit uncomfortably day in and out is simply inhumane. Employers, take note.

The South African Occupational Health and Safety Act of 1993 says explicitly: “[An] employer [is] to bring about and maintain as far as reasonably practicable, a work environment that is safe and without risk to the health of the workers.” Moreover, “The employer must provide and maintain all the equipment that is necessary to do the work, and all the systems according to which work must be done, in a condition that will not affect the health and safety of workers,” according to the act. It’s right there in black and white.

When reading the above clauses, or upon hearing mention of the Occupational Health and Safety Act, your mind may wander to scenes of construction workers unassumingly going about their daily business while dodging potential death from above, a wrecking ball defying physics and parting from its chain, a distracted co-worker discarding a brick from the umpteenth floor of a half-built high-rise… Hard hats, steel-toe boots, luminous yellow safety jackets, and the many other health-and-safety regalia required on a construction site. But a snappily dressed individual seated behind his or her desk in a chair that resembles more an ancient torture device than a piece of furniture does not immediately inspire worry for their wellness or the suffering thereof. A sloppily designed chair is not as fearsome as, say, a heavy pallet of bricks wafting through the sky, attached only by chains barely visible to the naked eye, much in the same way that human beings tend not to be as afraid or aware of global climate change and its possible flooding effects, as we would be of a wall of whitewater about to wash away the beach we’re lounging on. It’s the slow-burn effect of denial. Which is why it’s not a legal prerequisite for employers to supply their employees with seating that won’t detrimentally impact their health.

Sitting incorrectly is even worse than sitting

The Mayo Clinic medical centre analysed 13 studies of the effects of sitting time and activity levels, and found that people who sat for more than eight hours a day with no physical activity had a risk of dying similar to the risks of dying posed by obesity and smoking. “It seems clear that less sitting and more moving overall contribute to better health,” the author of the article concludes. In other words, sitting is bad for your health. No surprise then that researchers found that sitting badly while sitting is even worse for your health and can lead to all sorts of musculoskeletal problems years down the line. One case study even found a correlation between mental health issues and poorly equipped desks with ill-designed chairs – it’s not too much of a mental leap to imagine these psychological effects. The person in the chair is the proverbial frog in a slow-heated pot of water.

For many of people, sitting is literally part of the job, and we do this on average for around nine hours per day. “Technologies such as the computer and video games have contributed to the allure of the chair,” as a very uncool-sounding author in Scientific American puts it, but rightly so. For many of us, the majority of daily life is spent in a chair and staring at a screen, which is why it should be done in the most comfortable seat available to you, arguably just as comfortable and musculoskeletal-serving as the bed you sleep on for eight hours per night. Which brings us to ergonomics and the chair. Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) typically include injuries to the shoulders, wrists, elbows, neck, back, and hands, and, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention based in the US, in 2001, employers suffering from MSDs were involved a median of eight days away from work compared with six days for all non-fatal injury and illness cases. Employers, take note!

Economics of ergonomics

Quick definition, as per the suggested amendments in the Occupational Health and Safety Act. Ergonomics: “A scientific discipline concerned with the fundamental understanding of interactions among humans and other elements of a system, and the profession that applies theory, principles, data and methods to design in order to optimise human well-being and overall system performance.” Got it? Now, think of this application to chair design.

“We have a right to work in an environment that promotes health, safety and the well-being of employees,” says Philip Wichmann, Director of South African ergonomic chair manufacturer Karo. The white paper on amendments to the Occupation Health and Safety Bill was gazetted in January last year and aims to include the consideration of ergonomic risk factors in the workplace. “An employer or self-employed person shall ensure that the exposure of a person to ergonomic risk factors is either prevented or, where this is not reasonably practicable, adequately controlled,” is but one of the suggested clauses in the paper.

Given the scientific data on the detrimental effects to employee health and, eventually through absenteeism, the employer’s bottom line, the whole argument whether or not to introduce ergonomically optimal chairs into the workplace seems a cut and dried affair, even if it isn’t a legal obligation just yet.

It will save employees’ backs, and maybe, in future, an employer’s behind.

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