I just returned from a day-long workshop on exoskeletons hosted by the Ohio Safety Congress. The opening slide to the session proclaimed, “Exoskeletons are here!” There is no doubt that they are available, but the bigger question is whether they have progressed enough to warrant the investment.
The technology of exoskeletons is advancing rapidly. Exoskeletons can currently provide effective assistance for some challenging jobs, and as the technology advances, their application will only grow. However, there are also a number of gaps, including operator comfort and usability, that will likely need to be addressed before the technology gains widespread acceptance.
Right now, the advances in technology may be outpacing the research. As a result, it is difficult to offer advice based on data. Three researchers presented their findings:
- Jason Gillette (Iowa State University) presented results from lab- and field-based studies of an upper-extremity device.
- Maury Nussbaum (Virginia Tech University) reviewed findings from his laboratory-based studies of several upper-extremity devices.
- Greg Knapik (Ohio State University) described the results from studies on two different devices. The first device restricted movement rather than augmented capability and, as such, was more of a brace than what I would consider an exoskeleton. The second device was one of the same upper-extremity devices used in Nussbaum’s research, albeit with different tasks and outcome measures.
All three researchers indicated that it is too early to discuss the “best” exoskeleton, or even the best approach to augmenting human performance. The effectiveness of an exoskeleton appears to be very task dependent. A device that is effective for one task may actually expose the user to increased hazards on a different task.
Since exoskeletons are an emerging technology, the data is lagging. There isn’t sufficient evidence to predict which type of device will be most effective for each task situation, or even if the exoskeleton will reduce risk exposure. This is a substantial gap given the cost of exoskeletons.
The best-case scenario, based on currently available research, is that the use of an exoskeleton should be evaluated as a form of PPE when engineering controls aren’t feasible for the job. The worst-case scenario is that the exoskeleton device creates new risk exposures that are at least as bad as the risks which it is intended to prevent.
Exoskeletons have a great deal of potential for improving human performance and reducing injury risk. However, we still don’t have the data to conclude which tasks will benefit from differing technologies or even if exoskeletons will be able to reduce workplace injuries. As a profession, we are only starting to learn about the impact that exoskeletons have on fitting the work to worker. In their current state, exoskeletons are still in the “trial and error” stage.