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Updated 9:00 AM March 20, 2009

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Spotlight : Cooney cures aches, pains with ergonomics

With an adjusted chair height, a new posture or a slight tilt to a computer screen, Sarah Cooney can work wonders on your office experience.

The ergonomics program coordinator for the U-M Campus and Medical School specializes in helping staff and faculty work comfortably and effectively in the job environment. Cooney conducts ergonomics consulting and routine training, and works with interior design teams to make sure offices are set up in the most beneficial way to workers. “I look for how a person relates to their workspace,” Cooney says.

Photo by Lin Jones, U-M Photo Services

If you’re experiencing back pain, take a trip to the Occupational Safety and Environmental Health (OSEH) “chair room,” where Cooney helps employees find more comfortable chairs after a five- to 10-minute “chair sit.” If you think you can cure all of your office aches with a brand new chair, however, think again. “People always ask me what’s the best chair, but I can’t answer that because it’s how the chair fits you,” Cooney says. Her recommendations are tailored to the individual. “That’s why in ergonomics a cookie-cutter approach is not as effective,” she says.

And it’s not just about chairs. Cooney can help employees find keyboards, computer mice and other ergonomically friendly devices that make the job easier and sometimes less painful.

Cooney’s dedication to preventative health doesn’t end with her workday; she teaches CPR to colleagues and community members. “It’s fun to teach somebody how to help somebody else,” Cooney says. A CPR class lasts from two to eight hours, and Cooney likes that she can pick and choose when and whom she teaches. She has taught both church groups and medical professionals and says learning CPR is based on lots of practice. “You have to prove your skills to pass,” Cooney says, adding that she failed a nurse and a doctor who didn’t take the class seriously.

Cooney graduated from Central Michigan University in 1988 with a bachelor’s in psychology. She went back to school 10 years later and received an occupational therapy degree from Wayne State University. After interning and working for Ingham Regional Medical Center she started her own ergonomic consulting firm and worked for Michigan Spine Care until 2005. During this time she began teaching CPR to get more involved in the community and has taught the class for eight years. She became an ergonomic consultant for MHealthy in 2005 and transferred to OSEH in March 2008.

With OSEH, developing technology keeps Cooney on her toes. “The tools and technology of the workplace outpaces the science of ergonomics” she says. As office computers multiply and more employees tote their laptops to and from work, she must consider new innovations when analyzing how people interact with their environment. “It’s an ongoing challenge to keep up with technology,” she says.

Although chasing fast-growing technology at work, at home Cooney returns to life’s simpler aspects. Raised vegetarian on an organic farm in Manchester, she grows fresh vegetables in her garden and lives on 6 acres of land in Bancroft with her husband, Tim, and 6-year-old daughter, Emily.

Despite the 90-minute commute from Bancroft, Cooney enjoys her job. “I love the variety of people I see and being able to make a simple fix. I love having people come back and say they can’t believe how a simple fix made a big difference,” she says.

The weekly Spotlight features staff members at the University. To nominate a candidate, please contact the Record staff at

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