Construction workers suffer a high rate of musculoskeletal disorders, and exoskeletons can reduce the physical load on workers performing demanding, repetitive tasks. But the industry lags others in employing these mechanical devices, mainly because of costs, lack of awareness and injury concerns, according to an academic report.
Exoskeletons, or EXOs, have been around since the 1960s, but they are relatively new to the construction industry. Several studies have highlighted their potential benefits for construction, but adoption is limited, according to a report titled “Identifying Facilitators, Barriers and Potential Solutions of Adopting Exoskeletons and Exosuits in Construction Workplaces.” The paper is based on a study conducted by engineering professors at West Virginia University and the University of Wisconsin-Madison.
What is an exoskeleton?
Exoskeletons are wearable technology that can minimize injury by providing joint support, distributing weight and correcting posture, the report says. They are classified as active, passive and semi-active.
Active EXOs are equipped with power sources, such as electric motors, hydraulic actuators and pneumatic or other energy sources to enable workers to move faster or lift or carry heavier loads.
Passive EXOs store energy through springs, dampers or other materials generated by the user’s movement and then use the energy to augment power in other body parts that require support.
Semi-active EXOs use low-power actuation units to modify spring-based mechanisms to enable passive exoskeletons’ adaptivity.
The devises also are categorized by upper extremity (arms, shoulders and upper torso), lower extremity (legs, hips and lower torso) and full body (upper and lower torso).
Benefits of exoskeletons
EXOs can enable construction workers to move faster, carry heavier loads and perform repetitive tasks with greater endurance, which can increase productivity and safety, the report shows. As important, they can reduce fatigue and the risk of injury.
EXOs also may help “aged or physically incapable workers” maintain their jobs longer and attract a larger, more diverse pool of workers to construction and ease the worker shortage, the report says.
There are various types of EXOs that provide benefits for construction:
- Power gloves and handling EXOs help in lifting and holding heavy objects and tools for long durations.
- Arm and shoulder EXOs reduce strain in lifting, holding and repetitive arm movement activities, such as cutting, drilling and scraping.
- Back-support EXOs reduce lower back issues while lifting heavy objects and working in a forward-leaning posture, diminishing muscle stress.
- Leg-support EXOs enable workers to maintain prolonged standing and crouching postures, which are common in construction, and reduce the stress on knees and legs.
- Full-body EXOs can turn a user into a “super-worker” to safely lift and manipulate up to 200 pounds.
Barriers to use
While EXOs offer benefits, they have many barriers to adoption in construction, the authors write.
National policies and regulations are needed to ensure worker safety and support them if EXO injuries or accidents occur. Specific policies also are needed to determine who should pay for training and injuries.
While EXO usage is more prevalent in other industries, the technology needs improvements to adapt to construction applications. For example, the study highlights the need for modifications, such as integration with PPE, and specific lightweight and tailor-made models for construction workers.
In addition, most construction businesses remain unconvinced about EXOs’ benefits because of costs, safety concerns and efficacy, the paper shows. Studies have been conducted to assess the technology’s usability in construction, but feasibility and real-world case studies are needed to push organizations toward adoption, the study finds.
Finally, EXOs’ wide adoption in construction will “strongly” depend on the technology’s acceptance by trade professionals. EXOs are considered difficult to use and becoming proficient involves a steep learning curve, the study notes. Plus, the construction industry is traditionally slow to change.
“Workers will have cultivated their preferred methods and habits for routine daily jobs and hence will be reluctant and resistant to change and to trying out new technologies,” according to the report.
EXOs can be equipped with sensors to collect data on performance and safety. However, this can raise concerns among workers who may think “they will be tracked and lose their privacy.”
While construction workers’ satisfaction plays a vital role in EXO use, they typically are not consulted in adoption and implementation. As a result, workers may have misperceptions about the equipment’s functions, benefits and potential risks—and thus be less enthusiastic about using it.
“[Construction] workers need to develop a personal appreciation of the benefits of using EXOs in order to facilitate their adoption in the workplace,” the report says.
In addition, while EXOs are designed to make workers more efficient and productive, laborers may think increased productivity will translate into fewer jobs. Plus, there are concerns about whether workers have the right to refuse their use.
Finally, active EXOs are usually bulky and sometimes require an electrical connection, but workers could become entangled with connecting wires.
Pathways to adoption
Construction company and union leaders can play an important role in EXO adoption, the report states, such as providing workers with information on EXOs’ potential benefits and hands-on experience with easy-to-use models.
Worker satisfaction is key to any new technology’s acceptance, so feedback needs to be sought and incorporated in the design of EXOs for construction.
The equipment’s visual appearance also is important. If EXOs are designed to be “invisible” and “appealing,” they might be more attractive to workers, especially young ones.
The report concludes that continued research is essential for promoting EXO adoption in the construction industry, and more education and training is needed to increase awareness and use among current and future workers.