The Technological Takeover: Exoskeletons in the Workplace

Throughout history technology has had an evolving role in the workplace. From the beginning we have used water, steam, and coal to power our workplaces, fast forward to experimentation with electricity and the introduction of the assembly line. Over the last two and a half centuries, communication and transportation have been revolutionized, not to mention the automation and digitization brought about using computers and electronics in the workplace. Our history is rich in technology inspiring greater efficiencies and innovation.

The technological takeover does not end there. Today, we are fully submerged in an era of wearable technology. From smart watches and jewelry to fitness trackers, to augmented reality headsets and artificial intelligence hearing aids, this technology is all around us. Taking wearable technology one step further, the use of exoskeletons in the workplace is in high demand.

Exoskeletons are assistive devices, worn on the body, designed to aid mechanically by reducing the load sustained by the body. Passive exoskeletons work to support the body using springs or other elastic structures, while active exoskeletons will use motors to reduce the muscular load. Wearing an exoskeleton at work gives you the support necessary for those tough tasks. Think about it, you are going to lift a 15kg box from the floor up to your workstation, once you’ve got the box in hand, the exoskeleton gives you the extra ‘umph’ needed to lift that box. Dynamic lifting tasks like the previously mentioned exercise are great candidates for the application of exoskeletons in the workplace. One study[1] explored the use of passive exoskeletons for a simulated dynamic lifting task. The study recruited 36 male participants to perform a variety of lifting conditions:

  • with vs without exoskeleton
  • squat vs stooped posture
  • symmetrical vs asymmetrical lifting posture.

The laboratory study was designed to mimic workplace tasks, wherein which the exoskeleton could prove to be of assistance. Using the exoskeleton for these simulated tasks showed an 8-17% reduction in hip extensor muscle activity. Additionally, the results of this study suggest that there is potential for exoskeleton use to lower employee heart rate while performing repetitive lifting tasks.

Like each industrial revolution before it, the technological takeover requires more knowledge, more research, and more application to thrive. Exoskeleton application in the workplace fully embraces the revolutionary mindset, putting employee health and well-being at the forefront of solution application. It is time we started thinking outside the box and started bringing forward solutions which prioritize the musculoskeletal health of our workplace athletes each day.

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[1] Luger, T., Bär, M., Seibt, R., Rimmele, P., Rieger, M. A., & Steinhilber, B. (2021). A passive back exoskeleton supporting symmetric and asymmetric lifting in stoop and squat posture reduces trunk and hip extensor muscle activity and adjusts body posture – a laboratory study. Applied Ergonomics, 97, 103530. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.apergo.2021.103530