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Muscle- and task-dependent responses to concurrent physical and mental workload during intermittent static work

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Many workers experience combined physical and mental demands in their jobs, yet the contribution of these demands to the development of musculoskeletal disorders is unclear. The purpose of this study was to investigate muscle- and task-dependent responses to concurrent demands during intermittent static work. Twenty-four participants performed shoulder, wrist, and torso exertions at three levels of physical workload (PWL) in the absence (control) and presence (concurrent) of a mental arithmetic task. Compared to the control, concurrent demand conditions resulted in decreased muscle activity (4–9% decrease), increased cardiovascular load (2–4% increase), and impaired motor co-ordination (9–24% increase in force fluctuation). Furthermore, these outcomes were more prominent at higher PWL levels and within postural (shoulder and torso) muscles. Mental task performance exhibited greater interference with the physical task at low and high PWL levels. Thus, it may be important to consider these muscle- and task-specific interactions of concurrent demands during job design to address worker health and performance issues.

Practitioner Summary: Occupational tasks place both physical and mental demands on workers. These demands can adversely affect physiological responses and performance, and are muscle- and task-dependent. Findings from this research may facilitate the development of ergonomics interventions, such as task redesign and tool/workstation design, that may help reduce risk of workplace injuries.
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Keywords: mental workload; performance; physical workload; physiological responses

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: 1: Departments of Cognitive & Learning Sciences and Kinesiology & Integrative Physiology,Michigan Technological University, Houghton,MI, USA 2: Department of Industrial and Systems Engineering,Virginia Tech, Blacksburg,VA, USA

Publication date: October 1, 2012

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