Exoskeletons at the workplace: blessing or curse?

The number of injury-related work absences and the rising reasons behind them is raising concerns. Exoskeletons could be of help to protect a worker's health, but how secure are these complex systems?

New technologies to prevent and manage physical damage from Repetitive Strain Injuries (RSI) are expanding

The number of injury-related work absences and the rising causes behind them is raising concerns. Exoskeletons could be of help to protect a worker's health, but how secure are these complex systems?

A large number of workplace sick leaves can be traced back to overstraining of the muscular and skeletal systems, with back pain being an especially prominent and common type of these complaints. Of particular danger to the muscular and skeletal systems is the threat poised by single-sided movements and patterns that are constantly repeated in everyday work. A possible consequence of this is the so-called Repetitive Strain Injury syndrome (RSI syndrome). Musculoskeletal disorders such as tendinitis, are an example of the consequences of cumulative traumas.

The prevalence of such strains in workplaces such as logistics centers, factories or construction sites, is becoming more widespread. With absenteeism being an undesirable trend on the increase, some companies are developing ways to relieve and minimize the burden and risk of injuries on employees. And one of the answers is the rise of the exoskeletons. These support structures are already used in medicine, for example in the form of a back orthosis, which resembles a corset and stabilizes and relieves the body from weight and undesired postures.

In addition to medical uses, exoskeletons will gradually be suitable for working environments. These structures are mostly a system of sheaths that enclose the body. Their role is to support and amplify certain movements while being driven by servomotors (also defined as rotary actuators) such as those used in the Laevo exoskeleton system. This strap-on skeleton is attached to the shoulders and thighs was developed for neutralizing physical damage caused by heavy lifting and constant bending. The German Bionic System is a further example of the exoskeleton. Its developers focus on the prevention of injuries caused by heavy load lifting. A special feature of this technology is its ability to integrate machine learning.

Exoskeletons can deter and counteract the RSI syndrome, however, those who could benefit from this innovation should consider its potential problems, in particular with regards to muscles: With extensive reliance from the body on the robot-like shells, there may be a risk of muscle tissue degradation.

In the more advanced formats to be employed in the coming year, there will be a heightened risk of digital hacking, as more complex and integrated systems could be more vulnerable to security breaches. Such prospects have recently become of concern for patients with pacemakers. Eventually, with the spread of exoskeleton technologies, the coming years will open the question on whether these systems are mainly for ensuring workers' health or mainly to expand the efficiency of work processes and supply chains. While both goals are beneficial, the prioritization of one over the other may have consequences yet to be determined.

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