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12 April 2024

Take the strain out of work

By Reena Amos Dyes



Repetitive strain injury may be the scourge of the modern computerised workplace, but experts say a few simple measures could put an end to the problem, which costs UAE businesses millions of dirhams a year.

Recent studies in the Netherlands have shown almost half of all office workers reported pain in the upper-neck and limbs, which they attributed to conditions in the workplace. Finding a solution to repetitive strain injury (RSI) or work-related disorders can save companies huge sums of money. Estimates of how much these disorders cost economies range from 0.5 per cent to two per cent of the Gross National Product (GNP).

Backache, shoulder and neck pain, RSI, tendinitis, carpal tunnel syndrome and eye strain are just a few problems office professionals face and the UAE is no different.

Dr Abraham Paul, orthopaedician at the Union Medical Centre, Karama, sees up to 30 people a day who suffer from work-related problems. “Back, neck and shoulder pain, ligament strain and RSI are the most common ailments due to long hours spent at badly-designed workstations,” he says.

However, some firms have been quick to catch on that by implementing the best health and safety practices, they can help reduce sick leave and make for healthier offices. As a result ergonomic experts are being hired by companies to look into office and workstation design. Ergonomics is the scientific study of equipment, office furniture and workstation design for the purpose of improving efficiency, comfort, productivity and safety of workers.

These experts advise companies about the design and layout of workspace, air quality, noise levels, lighting, temperature control, how user-friendly their software is and how compatible it is with the work being done. They also advise clients about psychosocial aspects such as job satisfaction, occupational stress, shift work, perceived work interference, user and task compatibility and work-life balance.

While in the West ergonomic experts are hired on a regular basis, this concept is still new in the UAE. Dubai-based ergonomics consultant Charles van Schalkwyk, who advises companies such as British Petroleum, Petrofac, Shell, Johnson & Johnson, Nissan ME, Kinnarps and McDonalds in the UAE, says a properly designed workstation leads to better performance at work.

“When I came here three years ago from South Africa very few firms were interested in ergonomics. But slowly companies are becoming aware of the need and advantages of seeking the advice of experts.
They have begun to realise that if an office or workstation is not properly designed, it will result in loss of productivity, because more workers will call in sick or will not be able to perform to their optimum level.”

Schalkwyk, who sees 50 to 60 people a week with back, neck and shoulder pain and elbow and wrist injuries says about 20 per cent of people he works with suffer from lower back pain because of the wrong chair and desk set up. Shell, which employs around 500 people in the UAE, requested Schalkwyk’s services two years ago when they realised a number of employees were suffering from occupational health issues such as lower back pain and other musculoskeletal discomfort. Schalkwyk began advising them and gradually the problems disappeared.

“Now Schalkwyk helps us in the ergonomic assessment of new workers. Schalkwyk makes sure their workstations meet their job requirements and are set up in such a way they can work without facing any discomfort,” said Simon Buerk, Communications Manager at Shell.

The good news is that local firms have also realised the importance of ergonomics and have started taking expert advice too. Dubai Holding, the Executive Office, Nakheel, IDAMA and Dubal also now employ the help of an ergonomics expert to help employees improve their productivity.

But Schalkwyk says more needs to be done. “Companies have to realise ergonomics have to be thought about right from the word go at workplaces. It is best to get an expert in to look at your office and workstation designs before the project really gets off the ground so that mistakes can be rectified before they even have a chance to happen,” says Schalkwyk.

Effects of a bad posture and long hours

Ragini Kapoor, who works in the customer care department of a bank in Dubai suffers from cervical spondylosis. The 31-year-old Indian woman’s problems were brought on by long hours spent in the office in a cramped workstation seated on an uncomfortable chair.

“Our bank is currently expanding so they have hired more people than they have space for. And we are all forced to share our workstations and sit shoulder to shoulder for nine hours.

“There is no leg room and the desk is full of files and computers. So I am forced to work in the same cramped position throughout the day. This has led to stiffness in my right shoulder and arm. Also the chairs are half backed ones that do not support the upper back, so my lower back hurts.

“I consulted my doctor because apart from back ache and stiffness in my arm and shoulder, I was also feeling dizzy and nauseous.”

Dr Abraham Paul (pictured right), an orthopaedician at the Union Medical Centre, Karama says: “Ragini suffers from cervical spondylosis and fibromyalgia of the scapular region, brought on by working long hours in a bad posture.”

Kapoor adds: “I have asked the management to do something about it but they say though they realise I am having problems due to the conditions we are working in they can’t do anything about it until the new office space is built.”