Exoskeleton Technologies

by Dr. Amin Yazdani and Dr. Marcus Yung, Canadian Institute for Safety, Wellness, and Performance, Conestoga College

Are Exoskeletons Effective in Reducing Workplace Injuries and Improving Productivity and Performance in the Construction Sector?

The Musculoskeletal Disorder Problem in Construction

Construction workers are at risk of workplace injuries and disability, many of which are related to musculoskeletal disorders (MSD). MSDs are injuries that result from overuse and often develop over time; examples of MSD include low back injuries, rotator cuff injuries, tendinitis, and carpal tunnel syndrome. Common MSD task-related risk factors include repetitive and/or forceful movements, awkward and static postures, cold/heat, contact stress, and vibration. According to workplace insurance board statistics, MSD accounts for 38 percent of all lost time claims, costing businesses billions of dollars due to worker absence, lost productivity and other indirect costs. Early exits from the labour market due to workplace injuries have contributed to the looming labour shortage experienced by the broader skilled trades industry.

Wearable Exoskeletons: The Silver Bullet?

Researchers at the Canadian Institute for Safety, Wellness, & Performance (CISWP) have focused on improving and sustaining the health and safety of workers in the skilled trades through effective strategies to prevent workplace injuries. Assistive technologies, such as wearable passive exoskeletons, are gaining popularity as a potential solution to augment, enable, assist, and/or enhance a worker’s physical capacity. Passive exoskeletons may play a role in reducing MSD, as they are designed to redistribute load, absorb shocks and absorb a portion of the effective weight to minimize the problematic high forceful exertions.

Laboratory studies evaluating the biomechanical and physiological impact of exoskeletons show initial benefits for workers. In one study, low-back passive exoskeletons have shown to reduce 10 to 40 percent of back muscle activity during dynamic lifting. Lab studies have also shown that wearing an exoskeleton during a lifting task increases metabolic efficiency and low-back loading. In another study, shoulder-support exoskeletons decreased fatigue during overhead work. In recent years, there has been a surge in laboratory-based studies that have contributed to the growing body of literature on exoskeletons for injury prevention.

Although exoskeletons show initial promise in reducing injury risk by reducing muscle loading and physical stress and strain during work tasks, exoskeletons have not been readily adopted and implemented by skilled trades businesses. In response, CISWP researchers have focused on two research initiatives to improve adoption and implementation of exoskeleton technologies:

The Impact of Using Exoskeletons on Work Quality and Productivity

Research has shown that exoskeletons are more likely to be adopted if they demonstrate a higher impact on quality and productivity; however, they are less likely to be adopted if they are too expensive and have a low return on investment. As a result, understanding the impacts of exoskeletons on quality and productivity, as well as their economic implications, can support decision-making in the adoption of exoskeletons by businesses.

CISWP researchers have conducted systematic reviews to understand the impact of exoskeletons on work quality and productivity. Most strikingly, the effectiveness of exoskeletons on quality and performance was dependent on task characteristics such as required movements and the workspace. Task characteristics should be considered when selecting and adopting exoskeletons to achieve the most effective outcomes for quality and productivity. Ultimately, our research found that more empirical studies are needed to improve our understanding of the quality, productivity, and economic impacts of exoskeletons.

The Impact of Exoskeletons in the Workplace with Construction Workers

One glaring limitation in exoskeleton research, both on its injury prevention and quality/productivity effectiveness, is the generalizability of findings. The current bodies of literature have not focused on investigating the effects of exoskeletons using worker participants, representative of potential end-users, and at work sites and environments, representative of actual working conditions; rather, current studies are often conducted in a well-controlled laboratory with a convenience study sample and using simple, standardized movements. Realistically, construction jobs are complex, highly variable, and dynamic, involve irregular work periods, and take place in unpredictable work environments. Although fundamental research is important, existing research findings are not easily transferrable to real work settings and are a recognized barrier in the adoption and implementation of exoskeletons in the construction sector.

CISWP researchers are bridging the gap between fundamental research and the needs of industry through an applied research approach and in collaboration with several organizations and stakeholders, including the electrical contractor members of the Electrical Contractors Association of Ontario. CISWP is currently investigating the effects of upper extremity exoskeletons (in partnership with Hilti Canada, Limited) on various trades in ICI, residential, and modular construction industries. This ongoing research leverages our expertise and established work on exposure and risk assessment, fatigue and fatigue measurement, and injury prevention to evaluate the day-long and multi-day effects of exoskeleton usage on worker fatigue, performance, and injury symptoms. Initial findings suggest the potential benefits of exoskeletons in reducing MSD pain symptoms at multiple body regions and identify the tasks that most benefit from its use. Upon conclusion of the study, CISWP will develop decision-making tools to support construction businesses in their planning for the effective adoption and use of exoskeleton technologies.

CISWP continues to seek partners who are interested in participating in the exoskeleton field study. If your organization would like to contribute to this important research initiative, please contact ciswp@conestogac.on.ca.

This article was also published in Volume 61, Issue 1 of The Ontario Electrical Contractor Quarterly Magazine, produced by ECAO.