Preventing musculoskeletal disorders (MSD’s) has always been a difficult challenge for companies operating in labor-intensive industries. Along with making ergonomic adjustments, more organizations are looking towards wearable technology as a means of decreasing workplace injuries. Although the concept of wearable robotics in the workplace is not new, according to a report in Market Research Engine, the exoskeleton market is projected to exceed more than $2.5 Billion in the U.S. by 2024.
The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that MSD’s account for 33% of all workplace injuries. Finding the most viable method to reduce these injuries is crucial for both productivity and reducing costs associated with workers’ compensation. When considering industrial exoskeletons as a solution for injury reduction, companies must research the pros and cons of implementing the emerging technologies within the workforce.
The Positive Impact
As early adopters of assistive robotics, the auto manufacturing industry turned to industrial exoskeletons to reduce injuries related to constant overhead tasks. Currently, Hyundai, BMW, and Ford utilize some form of wearable tech during the vehicle assembly process. In a press release issued by Ford in 2018, the company announced the introduction of upper-body exoskeletons globally into each of its 15 facilities. Since the implementation of wearable robotics, Ford has reported a decrease in lost time from workplace injuries. As technology advances, industrial exoskeletons also enable new opportunities for the elderly and mobility-impaired individuals within the workforce. With assistive robotics, the ability to perform tasks such as moving heavy objects or reaching overhead would be executed without overexerting the body and with little risk of injury.
The Hidden Setbacks
While purchasing cost is always a determining factor, there are many elements to consider following the investment. The Verge reports that the upper body vests worn in Ford facilities cost $6,500 each. Among other wearable competitors and depending on the model, cost can vary significantly within the space. Factors such as maintenance, storage, and repairs can easily lead to additional set-up and ongoing costs. Currently, exoskeletons are classified into two main categories; active and passive. Active exoskeletons utilize motors, hydraulics, and at times onboarding computers. Passive models, in contrast, favor springs and air dampers to assist with repetitive movements. With accidents and long term deterioration surely to play a factor in the device’s longevity, the many unique components of each model could prove for costly future repairs. The lack of long term research within the sector is the real cause of concern for those curious about exploring the market.
Although exoskeletons have made their way into the workplace, there are very few studies on the long term ramifications of workplace use. Due to minimal research, the industry has no set standard from which to abide. The available studies have displayed mixed results with some concluding evidence of negative impacts. As reported by the NCBI, subjects wearing an exoskeleton equipped with a steadicam vest experience increased spinal loading while performing work-related tasks. The increased loading of the lumbar spine - ie. force experienced by the lower back - often leads to future injuries. The report concludes that rather than reducing the load experienced by the upper extremities, the exoskeleton shifts the work to the lower back and legs. Additional concerns surround a lack of information about the long-term effects of exoskeleton use on the muscles and ligaments. Years of use could potentially lead to increased muscle deconditioning and muscle atrophy. When thinking of introducing exoskeletons into the workforce, companies must understand the way employees interact with their environment and whether or not this new technology fits in.
Engineering the Human to Move Through Any Environment
The underlying issue of most workplace injuries is a failure to understand and remember strong body positions while on the job. Focusing on the fundamentals of proper human movement within the workforce can lead to long term increases in productivity and significant reductions in workers’ compensation costs. Hub Group, a leading supply chain solutions provider, partnered with Worklete for a sustained injury prevention program utilizing a focus on proper human movement. Over three years, Hub Group was able to decrease its recordable injury rate by 63%, resulting in an 85% reduction in injury-related direct costs.
Although some research suggests that industrial exoskeletons are improving the workforce, there is still a need for additional information on the long term effects. Before wearable robotics become a staple within labor-intensive industries, companies should understand that proper human movement education has long-lasting, ongoing benefits that preserve the workforce.