SINGAPORE - They may not be as dramatic as falls from heights or collapsing scaffolds.

But ergonomics-related workplace health problems such as stiff necks, strained backs and numb wrists cost Singapore a whopping $3.5 billion a year, said the Workplace Safety and Health (WSH) Council.

These "work-related musculoskeletal disorders" can result from bad practices such as poor posture, repetitive action or incorrect handling of heavy loads.

In most developed countries, they are the most common type of occupational disease, noted Senior Parliamentary Secretary for Manpower Hawazi Daipi.

"Being a developed country, we can expect Singapore to show and experience a similar trend," he added at yesterday's Workplace Ergonomics Forum, hosted at SIM University.

These problems are already the third-most common source of occupational disease here, after deafness and skin disease.

To help firms, the council yesterday launched a set of guidelines on improving workplace ergonomics, or how workers interact with equipment and the environment.

These include tips on how to lift heavy objects safely and good office workstation design.

From this year, back injuries due to ergonomic risks - such as carrying heavy loads - will also be classified under "work-related musculoskeletal disorders" in the annual WSH statistics.

Previously, they were just classified as minor injuries.

The change "will give us a more complete picture of the injuries caused by poor ergonomic practices and increase awareness on the ground as well", said Mr Hawazi.

The council's approach towards ergonomics safety is one of raising awareness and building capabilities, rather than punishment and enforcement, he added.

It is therefore developing an e-learning module for awareness of ergonomic problems.

Firms which want to redesign their workplaces for better ergonomics can apply for funding from the Government's WorkPro scheme, which supports firms in adopting good work-life practices.

Workers can use the free ergo@WSH mobile application to snap photos and analyse their posture.

As an ergonomics specialist at manufacturer 3M, Ms Norsuriati Mohd Nor has met many workers who are unaware of this aspect of workplace health.

"But when we explain to them that it's about back pain and backaches, then they understand - oh, that's ergonomics."