Study: Obese Workers Are More Prone to Fatigue

July 23, 2014
Obese workers have less endurance and are more prone to fatigue than their non-obese co-workers, a new study suggests.

Obese workers have less endurance and are more prone to fatigue than their non-obese co-workers, a new study suggests.

Published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Hygiene, the study examined the endurance of 32 individuals in four categories (non-obese young, obese young, non-obese older and obese older) who completed three distinct tasks that involved a range of upper-extremity demands. The tasks – hand grip, intermittent shoulder elevation and a simulated assembly operation – involved periods of work and rest, and included pacing demands similar to those experienced by workers in manufacturing settings. 

“Our findings indicated that on average, approximately 40 percent shorter endurance times were found in the obese group, with the largest differences in the hand grip and simulated assembly tasks,” said Lora Cavuoto, Ph.D., an assistant professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at the University at Buffalo, SUNY. “During those tasks, individuals in the obese group also exhibited greater declines in task performance, though this difference was only evident among females.”

In addition to examining how obesity affected physical demands and capacity, Cavuoto and her colleagues looked at the interactive effect of obesity and age on endurance times. 

“Previous studies have indicated that both age and obesity lead to decreased mobility, particularly when it comes to walking and performing lower-extremity tasks,” said Maury Nussbaum, Ph.D., a professor in the Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering at Virginia Tech, who also worked on the study. “However, we found no evidence of an interactive effect of obesity and age on endurance times, which is contrary to previous findings.”

Obesity is associated with physiological changes at the muscular level, including a decrease in blood flow, which limits the supply of oxygen and energy sources. When performing sustained contractions, these physiological changes can lead to a faster onset of muscle fatigue.

The prevalence of obesity has doubled over the past three decades, and the increase has been associated with increased health care costs and higher workplace injury rates.

According to Cavuoto and Nussbaum, the results from this and related studies will contribute to a better understanding of the ergonomic impacts of obesity and age, which is important for describing the link between personal factors and the risk of workplace injury. 

“Workers who are obese may need longer rest breaks to return to their initial state of muscle function,” Cavuoto said. “Based on the increased fatigue found among workers who are obese, workplace designers may need to consider adding fixtures and supports to minimize the amount of time that body mass segments need to be supported. We believe our results will help to develop more inclusive ergonomic guidelines.”

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