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Preparing for an older and more obese workforce: An investigation of strength, endurance and psychomotor function
Lora Cavuoto, Ph.D. Candidate, Industrial and systems engineering, Virginia Tech

Work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WMSDs), particularly overexertion injuries, represent a significant economic burden and involve substantial adverse personal outcomes. Two important contemporary changes in workforce demographics may be associated with an increase in the future incidence and cost of WMSDs. First, more than two-thirds of the U.S. adult population is now either overweight or obese, a doubling of the prevalence of obesity over the past 30 years. Second, there has been a shift toward an older worker population, whose injuries often require more time away from work. Obesity and aging can modify job demands and affect worker capacity in terms of muscular and psychomotor function. However, there is a lack of empirical studies quantifying the work-relevant (or ergonomic) impacts related to task demands, capacities, and their potential imbalance.

My ongoing research is assessing obesity- and age-related differences in physical capacity by measuring localized muscle fatigue, endurance and the effects of fatigue on psychomotor function. Three experiments will be completed, progressing from controlled static to more complex intermittent and functional tasks. Cavuoto also examines whether age and obesity effects are modified by workplace/workstation configuration, specifically the extent to which body segment masses need to be supported. Several future plans stem from her current research. These include examining and characterizing the effects of aging and obesity on work capacity and injury risk under a broader set of task conditions; determining whether comparable effects are evident in the field (e.g., agriculture, manufacturing, construction and healthcare); and developing and evaluating targeted interventions. Outcomes of this research can facilitate the development of more effective (i.e., inclusive) guidelines to control WMSD risk and contribute to both proactive and reactive interventions to reduce excessive exposures to physical risk factors. Overall, my goal is to help ensure that ergonomic guidelines and practice are appropriate (or are adapted) to accommodate the diverse and changing workforce.

Bio: Lora Cavuoto is a Ph.D. candidate in the Virginia Tech Grad Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering. She received her M.S. in cccupational ergonomics and safety and B.S. in biomedical engineering from the University of Miami. Her research interests include occupational biomechanics, industrial ergonomics, occupational safety and health, and designing for the obese and older populations.

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