Occupational exoskeletons: Wearable robotic devices and preventing work-related musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace of the future
European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) publishes occupational exoskeleton report.
Exoskeletons are personal assistive technologies that affect the body mechanically. They can reduce the load of physical work such as heavy lifting, lessening the risk of musculoskeletal disorders. Ergonomic workplace design and layout are not always possible, for example in temporary workplaces. Exoskeletons can help compensate.
Like all new technology, they create a need for regulations and standards. The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (EU-OSHA) has published a report which provides designers with guidance. Redistributing stress to different parts of the body can affect workers’ health. Comfort is also an issue. Human-centred equipment design is advisable to make exoskeletons useful and accepted.
The growing interest in exoskeletons indicates that wearable robotic devices will possibly represent one of the next changes in many occupational scenarios (e.g. in economic sectors such as automotive and aerospace manufacturing, logistics, construction and agriculture).
Manual material handling (MMH) is a common physically demanding activity in many occupational contexts, such as manufacturing, logistics, construction and agriculture. MMH includes tasks such as dynamic lifting and prolonged stooped postures, can generate considerable compressive pressure on the lumbar spine and is one of the main risk factors for work-related musculoskeletal disorders (WRMSDs). WRMSDs not only increase the costs sustained by companies but, most importantly, have a severe impact on workers’ quality of life (Peters and Wischniewski, 2019). Safety and ergonomic guidelines for the workplace aim to reduce the workload on workers, often resulting in very strict limitations on MMH operations in terms of object weights and movement frequency (Garg, 1995).
With the use of technical devices, such as external manipulators, which unload all or part of the weight to be handled, the physical workload on workers can be reduced. Nevertheless, in some circumstances, such devices and other technical and organisational measures to design workplaces can be impractical or infeasible, and therefore it becomes necessary to consider the use of exoskeletons.
The report tries to define the state of the art of occupational exoskeletons and to illustrate what needs must be met and what requirements this typology of exoskeleton must possess in order to maximise the user benefits and minimise potential negative impacts, through a human-centred design (HCD) process.
Download this occupational exoskeletons report here.