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Taking a Next Generation Exoskeleton for a Spin

LHSFNA Associate Director Walter Jones tries on a suit from Ekso Bionics

Technology in construction has come a long way in recent years. Aside from being a key part of our everyday lives,

increasingly powerful smartphones and tablets have been replacing bulky paper blueprints and other construction drawings. Business information modeling (BIM) is changing how buildings are designed and constructed.

But what about new technology that also improves safety for workers? Earlier this year, Walter Jones, the Associate Director of the LHSFNA’s Occupational Safety and Health Division, got the chance to try out a piece of equipment with the potential to do just that.

The device in question is this slim, futuristic looking exoskeleton from Ekso Bionics. Unlike many other exoskeletons in development, which require battery packs, hydraulics or pneumatics to work, the Ekso suit is what’s called a “passive exoskeleton” – meaning it doesn’t need a power source to function.

“I walked away thinking these devices have a future in construction,” says Jones. “The device has the potential to allow workers to perform longer stints of awkward and overhead activities while experiencing less physical stress, musculoskeletal fatigue and pain.”

Worn like a backpack, passive exoskeletons use a simple counterweight system that makes it easier to lift materials above the waist or hold a heavy construction tool like an angle grinder for extended periods of time. See an example of how they work in this short video.

The suit transfers part of the load from the smaller muscles of the arms and shoulders to the larger muscles in the legs. These devices are seeing use in the airline industry, where maintenance workers spend a lot of time holding heavy drills overhead to service the wings of planes.

“In addition, because the suit makes you bend at the knees and keep your back straight, it allows the wearer to rely on their legs and core when lifting,” says Jones.

Other companies are developing full-body suits that will offer even more lifting assistance and may even protect workers from physical and environmental hazards. While this is a promising area to watch in the coming years, there are some concerns to be aware of.

The first is that the upfront costs can be prohibitive (the model we tried costs about $10,000). Though these devices can increase an individual worker’s physical capacity, following the hierarchy of controls to eliminate hazards is always preferable to adapting to the hazard. Redesigning the workplace to first eliminate and then reduce musculoskeletal hazards through engineering (such as this overhead drill press) and administrative controls has the potential to improve conditions for all workers on a jobsite.

Passive exoskeletons and other suits like them may one day find a home on construction sites. That role could be similar to a respirator – personal protective equipment used to keep workers safe when other methods aren’t sufficient.

[Nick Fox]

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