Ergonomics

 Occupational Exoskeletons

Last Updated: January 18, 2021
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Bionic exoskeletons and exosuits (together called exosystems) are wearable devices that have the potential to mitigate many Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorder injuries (WMSDs). This emerging technology is currently used mainly in 3 domains: military, medical/rehabilitation, and occupational/industrial. Military applications are controlled by the U.S. Futures Command. Medical/Rehabilitation applications are controlled by the FDA and the VA. The Ergonomics department of the USAPHC concerns itself with the occupational/industrial applications of exoskeletons.

The US Army Public Health Center is deeply involved in research helping to create the foundation for this groundbreaking technology. Here are some of the research papers exploring different aspects of exosystems:

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​Ergonomic Overview of Exoskeletons

For over 100 years, researchers and inventors have attempted to create devices that work in parallel with the body’s muscles and tendons in order to augment them. The potential impact of recent Exoskeleton technology on decreasing Work Related Musculoskeletal Disorder (WMSD) injuries and their associated reduction of monetary costs is encouraging. With any new technology however, there are potential user risks involved with bionic exoskeletons that need to be addressed, specifically physical ergonomic and psychological human factor risks. This paper offers an overview on ergonomic risks on the future use of exoskeletons in an industrial environment, provides exoskeleton background, discusses orthotic ergonomic risks that parallel exoskeleton ergonomic risk factors, and considers exoskeleton psychological human factor risks.

Exoskeletons in Occupational Health: Potential Imacts and Blurred Lines

​This PowerPoint presentation was given at the US Army's Occupational and Environmental Medicine Monthly Worldwide Meeting and Educational Activity Webinar on September 2, 2020. It discusses some background on exoskeletons, their origin stemming from orthosis, the difference between robots and cobots, and current realities versus the potental future for exoskeletons used in occupational health scenarios.

Measuring Exosystem User Intent - the EUI

This information paper on psychological human factor risks proposes a cognitive model and methodology for the measurement of an exoskeleton operator’s perceptions and attitudes, leading up to their intention to use the exoskeleton to complete future industrial work tasks - the Exosystem User Intent (EUI) model and questionnaire. Note that this version of the EUI is meant to only measure exosystem operators in an industrial environment. Exosystem operator use intent in the medical or military fields will be addressed in future documents.

Exoskeleton FAQs:

Q. What does an exoskeleton do exactly?

A. When a person does something physical, from tasks ranging from lifting a heavy weight to just walking down the street, they are using energy stored in their body (called metabolic energy). An exoskeleton, no matter if it's passive or active, decreases the metabolic energy the user needs. 

 

Q. What's the difference between Passive and Active Exoskeletons?

A. Passive exoskeletons utilize internal sources for power, such as springs, elastic, etc. Active Exoskeletons utilize external sources for power, such as electric batteries or compressed air powering motors that support loads.


Q. Are they expensive?

A. At the moment, very. But like the home computer, as exoskeletons become more and more popular the initial cost is likely to go down. Currently a lower-body exoskeleton used for walking rehabilitation of patients suffering from stroke or spinal cord injury can cost anywhere from $69,000 to $85,000. An popular upper-body exoskeleton used in auto manufacturing can cost anywhere from $4,000 to $6,000.


Q. Can it help decrease my injury costs?

A. Definitely, depending on your application. Toyota, for instance, has mandated upper-body exoskeletons for its workers who have their arms raised above their heads all day. For those employees it works well, decreasing the injury risk they are exposed to. For workers not doing work above their heads all day, it won't help that much.


Q. Can I wear an exoskeleton throughout my 8 hour shift?

A. You can, but it might be either uncomfortable or in the way if you do multiple tasks. Most workers that currently use exoskeletons do not.


Q. Is an exoskeleton Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) or a tool that enhances human capabilities (i.e. strength, endurance, etc.)?

A. An exoskeleton is both. Currently most exoskeletons are PPE, protecting workers from musculoskeletal injury risk. Engineers are developing smaller, active exoskeletons that can enhance some user's capabilities.