The Bottom Line: Do Occupational Exoskeletons Reduce Musculoskeletal Disorders?
Posted on July 12, 2022 | in Ergonomics
French researchers summarized 30 high-quality, peer-reviewed articles on the benefits and risks of using occupational exoskeletons to reduce MSDs in the workplace. Since 2018, 13 of those articles have been published. Director of Research Blake McGowan shares the findings in this month’s installment.
References: Jean Theurel & Kevin Desbrosses (2019) Occupational Exoskeletons: Overview of Their Benefits and Limitations in Preventing Work-Related Musculoskeletal Disorders, IISE Transactions on Occupational Ergonomics and Human Factors, DOI: 10.1080/24725838.2019.1638331
Hi, my name is Blake McGowan, and I’m a certified professional ergonomist with Humantech (now VelocityEHS Ergonomics). One of the really hot topics in ergonomics today is wearable exoskeletons in the workplace. The intent of these devices is to increase worker strength capabilities as well as reduce musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in the workplace. Unfortunately, there’s limited understanding of the benefits, drawbacks, as well as the trade-offs of these devices in the workplace.
Of the small number of studies completed and conducted, most of them focus on understanding the impact of the device on the joint it’s intended to help. For example, understanding the impact of an upper extremity exoskeleton on reducing muscle forces in the shoulder. Unfortunately, there haven’t been any studies that measure the impact of an upper extremity exoskeleton on other joints such as the low back.
The good news is that in 2018, Bill Maris and his colleagues from The Ohio State University published the first-ever study that evaluated the impact of an upper extremity exoskeleton on the forces on the low back. So, what did they find? First, they found that the upper extremity exoskeleton significantly increased the forces on the low back, the muscle forces, by approximately 50%. Secondly, these devices increased both joint compression as well as shear forces by about 33% and 20% respectively. Lastly, the workers commented that these devices were extremely uncomfortable and preferred not to wear them.
So, what does this mean? What’s the bottom line? The bottom line is that upper extremity exoskeletons significantly increase the forces on the spine, both muscle forces as well as joint forces. The constant muscle activity as well as the cumulative loading can be costly for the spine and may even lead to an MSD in the low back. However, it’s important to note that the research in this field, as well as the development of exoskeletons, is in its infancy. More research is required, as well as better development of exoskeletons, in order for us to come to a solution where we can actually increase worker capabilities without causing any consequences to other joints. The good news is that I think we’re close, that is in the near future.