The ability to give people more than human powers has long been a topic of science fiction, as well as real life research. The combination of robotics with wearable devices has given rise to exo technology, now being used to boost productivity in heavy industry but which also offers the capacity to limit harm and assist in recovery from injury. The Gallagher Workplace Risk team has been watching developments in this area with interest.
Insurers are reported to be cautiously optimistic about the implications of exo technology for reducing workplace injury claims, according to a recent article in Forbes. Independent research suggests that exo technology has the potential to considerably reduce the underlying factors associated with work-related musculoskeletal injury.
What is exo technology and how does it apply to safety?
Exoskeleton suits and devices are designed to augment human activities by delivering assistance through either force (active) or support (passive). The technology can be used in full body suits or ‘power gloves’, or to provide additional support for major joints such as the hips and shoulders. Currently there are more than 1000 exoskeleton units in use in workplaces around the world and in some places they are mandatory.
As well as augmenting human ability to perform activities requiring strength or force, exo technology has clear potential to prevent both sudden injury and conditions that result gradually from extended stress on specific muscle groups through repetition without sufficient down time to rest and recover between work demands. Some examples of occupations where this occurs include welding, painting, installation of ceiling elements, heavy lifting as a part of nursing duties and crouching and bending.
In these instances the exo technology doesn’t have to perform the task for the worker; simply providing additional support has the potential to avoid muscle stress injuries – the most common condition behind compensation claims according to recent Australian Work Health Safety data. Shoulder support exoskeletons are an example: the device augments the force required to keep arms raised during overhead work.
Exo technology use in workplace rehabilitation
The use of exoskeletons in return to work scenarios is also a possibility. At this stage the long term effects of the force displacement involved in exo technology on an uninjured body is still unknown and this is also applies to rehabilitative uses where workers have suffered injuries. Regulators around the world are also cautiously optimistic about the application of exo technology, as professionals and academics try to identify if exo technology is better positioned as engineering controls or personal protective equipment (PPE).
Integrated standards governing safe use of exo technologies in development include
- safety considerations in designing and selecting exoskeletons
- system training
- load handling
- recording environmental conditions with exoskeleton test methods
- labelling and usage information
- wear, care, and maintenance instructions.
Exo technology potential in Australian workplaces
Recently Gallagher Principal Consultant, Safety Eastern Region, Workplace Risk, Keith Govias was asked to provide a safety professional’s view of exo technology as it is starting to emerge in Australia, for ExoMeet 2020 – All about #Exoskeletons, held late 2020.
Govias has also been involved with local client trials of exoskeletons for businesses seeking solutions for work involving heavy lifting.
“Exoskeletons are one of the most exciting innovations to occur in injury management and rehabilitation in the past decade,” he says. “These devices have evolved away from the movie style robot suits to discrete aids that can be easily worn above or under protective clothing.
“Having worked in work related and non-work related injury management for the last 10 years I believe that there is significant promise in these new devices to help injured workers to a sustainable return to the workplace.”
He also sees broader applications for exo technology.
“Exoskeletons can also play a part in preventing injury proactively and supporting older or more vulnerable workers to stay actively employed for longer. I look forward to a future date where these suits are part of all workplace safety strategies.”
Keith Govias, Gallagher Principal Consultant, Safety Eastern Region, Workplace Risk
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