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    May 08, 2014

    The silent killer lurking in offices

    SITTING down for long periods in the office should come with a mandatory warning: It could speed up death.

    While office workers usually worry about back pain and hurting necks, the real danger lies in those silent chronic diseases you can't feel.

    Chia Kee Seng, dean of the Saw Swee Hock School of Public Health at the National University of Singapore, told My Paper: "Research shows that sitting for long periods of time contributes to the risk of metabolic syndrome, heart well as overall death risk.

    "One study reported that sitting for 11 hours or more per day increased the risk of death by 40 per cent, regardless of other activity levels."

    To tackle the threat, the Ministry of Manpower (MOM) and the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Council are urging employers to focus on their workers' health, and not just their safety.

    A panel will develop guidelines and encourage firms to adopt this approach.

    "We can also expect work-related ill health to rise over time...Our workforce will get older and become more susceptible to work-related health risks if we do not make adjustments in the work environment," said Deputy Prime Minister Tharman Shanmugaratnam at the launch of the seventh National Workplace Safety and Health Campaign yesterday.

    Mr Lee Tzu Yang, chairman of the WSH Council, added: "We tend to look at health as if it's different from safety. But, in fact, if you have underlying health conditions and you take them to work, there are certain risks."

    Professor Chia added: "Right now, employers see very clearly, if I have an accident in the workplace, MOM will come down and give a stop-work order - very direct cost implications. But if my workers have diabetes, insurance covers it...they don't factor in productivity loss."

    One study showed that work-related ill health cost Singapore $9 billion in 2011.

    Prof Chia noted that the office environment "encourages a sedentary lifestyle", which can lead to a high risk of diseases such as diabetes and hypertension, as well as high cholesterol levels. He suggested putting in place workplace health and wellness programmes, and changing habits.

    Sit-down meetings, for example, could give way to meetings where participants stand, he said.

    In 2012, MOM commissioned a study on WSH management in 30 companies, and implemented programmes based on each company's profile to promote safety and health. It found that employees in companies where safety and health were managed better were 7.4 times more likely to be satisfied with their jobs.

    At NatSteel, for example, workers go for annual health screening, which is paid for by the company. Those with health conditions will have to go for screening every six months. Obese employees are encouraged to go for fitness programmes, and talks on health and nutrition, all paid for by the company.

    On top of that, employees have also learnt to do stretching exercises.

    Tan Chee Lim, 46, a caging supervisor at the company, does 15 minutes of stretching before starting work. Some 300 workers under him follow suit.

    He said in Mandarin: "We feel more energetic. We do manual jobs, so stretching helps to prevent strains and injuries."

    And death.