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Ergonomics in China: Tackling workplace stress

The ILO works with unions and the government in China to reduce the impact of stress and poor ergonomics on workers.

Feature | 26 April 2016
GUANGDONG, China (ILO News) – It’s a Monday afternoon in Shenzhen, in the Chinese manufacturing heartland of Guangdong Province, and engineer Lingzhi Li is doing a routine check on the shop floor of a large factory producing electrical components, assessing the safety conditions of her fellow workers.

During her previous inspection, using the ILO Ergonomics Checkpoints, Li had red-flagged several issues that needed improvement. Today, she’s following up: checking which items can change from red to green, meaning problem solved, or red to yellow, indicating more must be done.

Ergonomics and work-related stress are relatively new issues in China, and there is little public awareness. But the consequences are well-known; chronic back, neck, shoulder or wrist pain; fatigue or eye-strain due to prolonged sitting, standing, repetitive tasks, or heavy lifting; and psychological problems such as tension and anxiety caused by intensive working time arrangements.

Ergonomics is sometimes seen as a less serious Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) issue than things like major industrial accidents or diseases such as pneumoconiosis – the inhaling of dangerous dust – which typically affects miners and is the most commonly notified occupational disease in China.

However, in the more developed economies of Europe, ergonomics-related illnesses - particularly musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) – are among the leading cause of sickness among workers, accounting for half of all absences and 60 per cent of permanent work incapacity.

China’s rapid industrialization means the country is likely to follow this path and see MSDs emerge as one of the most common occupational diseases.

“No country, and no workplace, is free from the ergonomic hazards. If not attended to, they can lead to reduced well-being if not actual disability, major loss of corporate productivity, as well as higher social security costs for society,” said Tim De Meyer, Director of the ILO Country Office for China and Mongolia. “We want safer and healthier workplaces to become an integral part of the new normal. China’s capacity to innovate will depend critically on the health of a possibly smaller but higher skilled, well cared-for workforce.”

Ergonomics Checkpoints

To address these ergonomics-related workplace risks, the ILO developed the manual, Ergonomic Checkpoints, and a series of other OSH tools, like Work Improvement in Small Enterprises (WISE)Work Improvement in Neighbourhood Development (WIND), and Stress prevention at work checkpoints. These have already proven popular and successful in promoting OSH in many countries.

China has around 42 million SMEs, with few resources and little capacity to address their internal OSH risks. To meet these needs the ILO’s Ergonomics Checkpoints are designed to be low-cost, practical and easy to implement.

The ILO Ergonomics Checkpoints were introduced to China in 2013 by the All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) and the National Institute of Occupational Health and Poisoning Control (NIOHP) through their OSH project, which receives technical support from the ILO.

Li’s company has started working with the Ergonomics Checkpoints in 2015 and has already reported rewarding economic returns. In her business unit alone output per person per hour is up 8 per cent, creating savings of 1.52 million RMB (roughly $0.23 million).

“It’s a win-win,” says Li. “On the one hand, it’s good for the workers, since the jobs are adjusted to fit them instead of asking the workers to fit the jobs. On the other hand, the company has benefited from the improved productivity.”

The ACFTU/NIOHP pilot-project (2013-2015) focused on four initial sectors - coal, chemicals, electronics and forging – which together employ millions of workers. Working with local-government OSH Departments and medical institutes, they reached thousands of enterprises across the country. For example, in Liaoning Province more than 1,000 enterprises adopted ergonomic measures to protect their workers’ health. Chinese suppliers to some multinationals have also begun to address ergonomic health issues.

“Through the project, we also hope to promote industrial civilizations by raising awareness on ergonomics in the whole society, modify national occupational health standards, and add more musculoskeletal disorders diseases into the national occupational disease list,” said Professor. Min Zhang, the lead expert of the ACFTU/NIOHP OSH project.

“The hope of the ILO and its Chinese partners is that by mainstreaming a ‘softer’ OSH issue like ergonomics they will raise widespread awareness about health benefits and create a gateway to tackling some of the more structural OSH risks that the Chinese workers face,” said De Meyer.