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9.3.99  
Preserve Your Body, Preserve Your Business
There's nothing self-indulgent about adopting ergonomic practices

Gitte Pedersen knew something was wrong when her back hurt so badly she couldn't get out of bed one morning. She had spent the previous week pulling all-nighters on a project for her two-year-old, international, high-tech consulting firm Proximity, which is based in New York City. During the two years she has worked on her own, Pedersen had made a bad habit of working 16-hour stretches in her home office, glued to her laptop and the telephone, which she used without a headset.

"I ended up having a very bad back problem," she says. "You don't think you're that sensitive. You think you're superwoman." Pedersen has since learned that she's anything but. She visited a physical therapist who agreed that her problems were work-related.

So-called musculoskeletal disorders -- upper body injuries caused by performing repetitive motions or static positions -- are the fastest growing workplace injury in the U.S., according to the Occupational Safety and Health Commission, and while you've probably heard plenty about the dangers these injuries present to employees, most small business owners neglect to think they they can get hurt too. For sole proprietors like Pedersen, being put out of commission by illness or injury just isn't an option.

The therapist helped Pedersen get well and taught her the basics of ergonomic work practices. She began taking breaks during her workday and performing stretching exercises. She purchased a $750 ergonomic chair that features an adjustable seat, back and arm rests. She also added a mouse with a built-in scroll tool and a separate keyboard with built-in wrist rests for her laptop computer. Her total investment was about $1,000. Since she has no employees -- her mother in Denmark does the bookkeeping -- Pedersen was able to keep the cost of her ergonomic makeover to a minimum.

Pedersen didn't stop there. She decided to help others avoid the crippling pain of musculoskeletal disorders by producing a computer screensaver, which is intended to educate employees about ergonomics, and is being distributed to companies in Denmark for use on their intranets. To do so, she partnered with Interactive Media Solutions a client in her native Denmark that produces educational CD-ROMs and Web sites for major corporations. They tested Ergosaver (http://www.ergosaver.com) over the summer in Denmark, where Pedersen says there is greater sensitivity to ergonomics. The screensaver, which is also available for download on the site, provides ergonomic tips and reminds PC users to take breaks and stretch.

Pedersen has learned that pain-free workdays are possible: "Just take breaks; don't work 16 hours in a stretch," she advises. "I think that's probably one of the things that is most typical when you start out in a small business. It's your business, and you don't go home. You work until the job is done."  Of course, you deserve a break. Think of it this way, you're doing your business a favor.


By Michele Marrinan

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