New technologies emerge every day, driving the workplace to innovate and adapt. Just twenty years ago, cell phone technology was not common in most work environments. Now, the way we work has been forever altered with the development of the smart phone.
In the same way cell and smart phone technologies revolutionized the way we communicate, one emerging technology is addressing how we physically approach tasks – the exoskeleton. Exoskeleton technology is looking to transform the current work environment by reducing worker fatigue and increasing productivity.
How The Exoskeleton Can Improve The Workplace
Humans are all created differently, but the tasks associated with various jobs are designed to be completed one-way. Because we are not all optimally designed for the physical tasks we are completing in the workplace, injuries are common and a major concern for both employees and employers. According to US Bureau of Labor Statistics, back pain is the leading cause of disability worldwide, causing more lost workdays than every other type of injury or illness, except the common cold. In the United States alone, there is $50 billion spent per year on lower back injuries.
But what causes such a significant number of lower back injuries and pain? According to research, there is a direct correlation between various repeat postures, injury and pain. This is where exoskeleton technology comes in. With exoskeleton technology, not only can pain be reduced or eliminated by corrected posture, but research indicates exoskeletons also decrease fatigue which can lead to additional injuries.
In a recent study conducted by UC Berkeley and UC San Francisco, the wearing of an exoskeleton while stooping caused a significant reduction in spinal muscle usage. By reducing the muscle usage, the exoskeleton helped eliminate the strain put on the back, which can reduce fatigue and possibly prevent an injury .
For companies, reducing lower back strain through an exoskeleton can mean a reduction in injuries and worker’s compensation costs.
How Do We Know Which Jobs Would Benefit From Exoskeletons?There are several different types of exoskeletons on the market ranging in a wide variety of assistance features. Some exoskeletons augment lifting which has shown to reduce worker fatigue, while others offer posture support to reduce the amount of time workers spend in awkward and risky positions.
In a recent field study conducted by Briotix, participants were evaluated using both lifting augmentation exoskeletons and posture-support exoskeletons.
- Of those wearing the lift augmentation technology, more than 80% felt the exoskeleton would help them manage musculoskeletal health, improve work performance and reduce work-related fatigue.
- Those wearing the posture-support device felt the technology provided them with a reminder to avoid bending and twisting via tactile cues from the device while providing some back support.
While the research continues to emerge with the benefits of the exoskeletons, the available evidence is limited, and there may be good reason to proceed with caution in many instances. There was evidence recently published by The Ohio State University Spine Research Institute to support careful testing and tactical deployment of exoskeleton devices. In some cases exoskeletons may decrease risk in one area of the body, but increase risk for another area of the body where the loads are being transferred. How do we know when an exoskeleton device is appropriate or not, and who it is appropriate for? What jobs or tasks would benefit most if completed with the assistance of an exoskeleton?
Traditional ergonomic assessments are not sensitive to the benefits exoskeletons offer. Because of this, we use wearable sensors that collect various types of data on the work that a worker is completing. This provides a more complete picture of the ergonomic risks of various jobs associated tasks and allows us to then better evaluate which jobs, tasks, and workers would most benefit from the assistance of an exoskeleton.
What Are Wearable Sensors
Wearable sensor technology is the best way to evaluate the benefits of exoskeletons in the field because they are fairly accurate, unobtrusive, and provide a wealth of in-depth data for analysis. But what exactly is a wearable sensor? While the term “wearable sensor” may be new to you, chances are you are at least familiar with one type of sensor and may in fact own it.
The heart rate monitor (HRM) is one common type of wearable sensor. If you own and wear an HRM, you are already aware of the benefits of the device. However, if you aren’t familiar with the HRM sensor, just as the name suggests, the device monitors/tracks your heart beat during different activities. That data can then be analyzed for a variety of purposes. In your personal life, you may analyze your heart rate during a workout to determine what activities best help you lose weight. In a work environment, an ergonomist can use the data collected to determine which tasks fatigue a worker and at what point an exoskeleton may be used to minimize the fatigue.
HRMs are just one type of wearable sensor that can be used to evaluate which employees and which jobs would benefit from an exoskeleton. There are several others, such as inertial measurement units (IMU), electromyography (EMG), and smart insoles for measuring ground reaction force, which can be used to provide a complete picture of the body for a comprehensive analysis.
Learn More About Wearable Sensors And Exoskeletons In Your Work Environment
Embracing exoskeleton and wearable sensor technology can mean a reduction in employee injuries and worker fatigue, which then correlates to a reduction in worker’s compensation costs and absenteeism.
We offer technical consulting services around the testing and implementation of exoskeleton and wearable sensor technology in your work environment. Your organization will then have data and an understanding of where and how these devices can be used. Whether you are looking to evaluate what employee tasks would best benefit from the use of exoskeletons, or analyze which type of exoskeleton will most reduce employee fatigue, we can provide you with the data your company needs to make the best strategic decision.
To learn more our technical consulting services, contact us today to discuss your specific needs.