An epidemiological research study conducted by Consultant Community Physician, Family Health Bureau, Ministry of Health Dr Kapila Jayaratne among 1607 schoolchildren (11-13 years old) in Grades 6, 7 and 8 in the district of Gampaha as far back as 2006 focusing on the classroom environment and the school bag found many deficiencies in this regard. The study covered the model, size, and weight of the schoolbag and also the related behaviour among children with regard to loading/weight, packing and wearing. The models fell into five categories - backpack, suitcase, shoulder bag, trolley case and hand carriage. Gampaha district was an ideal representation of the country’s schoolchildren because it has a mixed population - rural and urban and also semi-rural and semi-urban.
The positive findings were that nearly 80% of the children used the heathy model, backpack, and 97% carried it on both shoulders. However, the vital waist-belt was present only in 30% of the bags and among them only used by 31%.
The weight of the bag should be matched with the weight of the child -an ergonomic consideration. The international stipulated cut-off with regard to the bag weight/body weight is set to be 10%. However more than half the children surveyed (58%) had mismatched ergonomics because the bag weight/body weight rate was over 10%. The research showed that a majority of children use ergonomically-unhealthy bags or their carrying behavior is not correct, Dr. Jayaratne told the Sunday Observer. He said that after checking the contents of the bag, they had found that textbooks accounted for 37% of the weight; other books (writing books) 30% and non-book items 17.7%. The bag-weight made up the balance.
So what did these findings reveal?
They indicated there were unhealthy consequences due to carrying heavy school bags. Around 72% of students said they experienced physical discomfort from carrying excessive school material, while 35% complained of recurrent musculoskeletal pain. “These children are now suffering in silence. If they continue to carry these heavy bags on their backs for a long period, they will end up as patients with various muscle and joint pain in the future” Dr. Jayaratne warned.
Acting on this information, he said in 2011, the Ministry of Education had launched a Healthy Schoolbag Initiative in collaboration with Family Health Bureau. The healthy schoolbag features included; back model, two compartments, wider shoulder straps with movable buckles, cushioned back wall and a waist belt. “Bag manufacturers were made knowledgeable about the specifications on healthy school bags which The Sri Lanka Standards Institute developed at our request”, Dr. Jayaratne said.
“However the fact that such complaints by school children persist, calls for a rejuvenation of the healthy schoolbag initiative to safeguard the health of our children in the future”, he reiterated.