NIOSH Report: Wearable Exoskeletons to Reduce Physical Load at Work

NIOSH exoskeletonA new NIOSH report shows that from the standpoint of workplace health and safety, wearable exoskeleton devices may be beneficial in reducing musculoskeletal loads that are not otherwise abated by engineering process change.

Robotic-like suits which provide powered assist and increase human strength may conjure thoughts of sci-fi and superhero film genres. But these wearable exoskeleton devices are now a reality and the market for their applications in the workplace is projected to increase significantly in the next five years.

As with any technologic innovation, some of the pros and cons and barriers to adoption are not completely understood.  In this blog our objectives are to:  (1) describe wearable exoskeletons in the context of workplace safety and health control strategies; (2) highlight current and projected trends related to industrial applications of these technologies; and (3) invite input from our stakeholders on workplace health and safety experiences, positive or negative, with these devices.

The wearable exoskeleton was defined by de Looze et al. (2015) as “…a wearable, external mechanical structure that enhances the power of a person. Exoskeletons can be classified as ‘active’ or ‘passive’. An active exoskeleton comprises one or more actuators that augments the human’s power and helps in actuating the human joints. …A strictly passive system does not use any type of actuator, but rather uses materials, springs or dampers with the ability to store energy harvested by human motion and to use this as required to support a posture or a motion.”

Lifting and handling of heavy materials and supporting heavy tools are contributors to fatigue and musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) which are known to account for approximately 30% of lost-time workplace injuries and illnesses.

Liberty Mutual Insurance Company estimated the direct costs of injuries due to overexertion involving an outside source(from lifting, pushing, pulling, turning, throwing, or catching) to be $15.1 billion in 2012 – representing one-quarter of the total workplace injury direct costs (Liberty Mutual, 2014).

Several exoskeleton developers have recently approached NIOSH program managers with demonstrations of exoskeleton technology transfer. These devices appear to have benefits in some specific industry applications for reducing injury risk factors.  As their prices decrease we may anticipate more workplace interest in exoskeleton technologies.

However, their occupational use should be evaluated for their potential benefits and potential competing risks before widespread workplace adoption.