Exoskeletons for professionals: how effective against MSDs?

Professional exoskeletons are so called because, behind this scholarly term, bordering on science fiction, hides advanced technologies in the service of well-being at work. An exoskeleton (literally an outer skeleton, like the shell of a turtle) is a posture support and maintenance device. Now fully connected, it helps reduce fatigue, especially for technicians who strain their physique all day (such as people working in the assembly line). However, while reports of musculoskeletal disorders multiply, professional exoskeletons are still not widespread. So the question arises: do professional exoskeletons provide real help in this area? Opinions differ…

Exoskeletons: a vision above all

The exoskeletons are the result of an HCD (human centred design) policy. It stems from a philosophy. A philosophy that places the user of the objects, the worker, at the center of the design of the objects he will use. Why are they so rare? The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work stresses the lack of regulation in the management and definition of risk. To provide a comprehensive response in risk management, we must first agree on the definition of the latter. It is then that the exoskeletons will become a global tool for its management.

The European agency proposes indicators to define this common risk management policy. Who are: the weight lifted, carried or pushed, the frequency of exertion and the areas of pressure on the body for people in the office. Faced with the growing risk of musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs), she wants to make exoskeletons a global response. So good or bad idea?

Opinions that differ

The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work is unanimous: exoskeletons are a major help against MSDs. It’s not the same story on the French side. In 2018, the INRS (National Institute for Research and Security) published a booklet on the issue for business leaders. And his opinion on the matter is clear: Exoskeletons do not help fight MSDs effectively. They “are not systematically adapted to the morphology of each one (sex, height, weight) or to certain musculoskeletal, cardiovascular and respiratory health problems”. The agency goes even further and says exoskeletons can in turn create health problems. It lists 6 potential risks associated with the use of exoskeletons:

  • Collision with a third party
  • Collision with the user (the often robotic exoskeleton makes a mistake and injures its user)
  • The crush (especially the back, the Agency also points to a risk of entrapment)
  • Joint damage (if the range of motion exceeds the user’s physiological limits)
  • Friction or abrasion (prolonged friction can generate new pressure points on the body, while the exoskeleton is designed to reduce them)
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All the players agree on at least one point: the exoskeleton’s ability to relieve itself. Used properly, with a prior risk study, it can relieve material handling and line workers. While reducing the range of motion of the worker.

Research on exoskeletons is advancing rapidly, but not enough for French decision-makers who are asking to wait before generalizing their use. It is all the same reasonable to think that in the more or less distant future, many workers will be equipped with it. When the technology is perfected, we will all be robots.