New tech tackles upper body disorders
Interest in the practical utilisation of exoskeletons in real-world settings has increased in recent years.
By Salla Lind-Kohvakka
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are a major cause of sickness absences from work in the Nordics, as well as throughout Europe. They have been among the top 10 risks for decades, and – perhaps surprisingly – they persistently remain in this notorious risk group, although new risks have appeared, and others have vanished due to the larger changes in our ways of working.
From fields and forests to offices
A century ago, most of the work performed by humans was physical. During recent decades, however, work has undergone dramatic changes and the number and variety of knowledge-intensive tasks have increased considerably. Yet, despite the shift, MSDs have persistently remained a common issue in many companies and industries.
For desk-based office workers, for example, prolonged periods of sitting, repetitive movements when using the mouse and keyboard, and poor posture of the head and neck while working at a computer are just a few notable factors behind the cause of MSDs.
In addition to knowledge-intensive industries, a major part of our society still remains dependent on work that is physically strenuous. In these jobs, the common causes behind back and upper-body pain includes poor working postures, heavy lifting. and often a combination of both.
In addition, the need to use sudden muscular power and/or conduct repetitive movements for extended periods, can soon contribute to symptoms that lead to increased absences from work. Healthcare, construction, the food industry and retail are just some examples of industries where a large percentage of core tasks are carried out by manual labour.
Tackling MSDs at Vaasan
In 2019, If’s client, Vaasan, a Finnish bakery company, started an initiative that aimed to reduce the upper body workload of employees working in dispatch at Vaasan’s bakeries. As part of the study, Vaasan conducted a master’s thesis that was funded with a scholarship from the August Ramsay Foundation, hosted by If.
The study had several objectives, with all of them aimed at further understanding the risks relating to MSDs at Vaasan, as well as in helping to identify methods and possible solutions to manage them.
As part of the research, and in order to understand which of the work phases caused the highest physical load, wearable technologies were utilised. In practice, this meant that a select group of employees wore special clothes that were equipped with sensors, which measured physical load while they were executing tasks. The sensors tracked physical workload with EMG (electromyography) technology, or more simply, by recording the electrical activity of skeletal muscles.
In addition, the devices utilised movement sensors and a heart rate monitor. The measurements were also recorded, and later analysed statistically in order to provide a detailed look at the causes of MSDs, in order to further understand both the risks involved and the ways to reduce them.
What is an exoskeleton?
Interest in the practical utilisation of exoskeletons in real-world settings has increased in recent years. The focus of attention has been especially on their potential to reduce occupational exposure to physical stress, and to help employees to retain their workability for longer than before, through the increasing of their strength with the support of an exoskeleton.
Exoskeletons, in essence, may be described as wearable robots, providing additional muscular strength to the human form. Exoskeletons have been perceived as a technology with the potential to become an inherent part of various industries where human capabilities may benefit from added external power or precision.
The European Agency for Safety and Health at Work described exoskeletons in 2019 thus: “The idea of supporting human activities with automation and mechanisation such as robots and robotic devices is not recent. Robots and robotic devices, such as exoskeletons, typically perform or support the performance of tasks to improve the quality of life of intended users, irrespective of age or capability.”
However, although the technology, and the concept itself may not be new, wearable solutions have been relatively rare in practice to date.
Exoskeletons provide advantages
With an aging population now one of the major challenges confronting 21st century Europe, exoskeletons may turn out to be the warmly welcomed, low-threshold solution to help many businesses keep their competent and experienced employees at work for longer than previously was thought possible. At the same time, exoskeletons have the potential to help employees maintain their health and wellbeing despite conducting tasks that might otherwise be considered physically too demanding or strenuous.
Exoskeletons offer a potential solution especially in work environments where there are few alternatives to changing the way the task is performed. Exoskeletons can also provide a major advantage in those situations when an employee needs physical support and additional strength to be able to optimally execute tasks in their work.
Reduction of upper-body strain in manual work
At Vaasan, and particularly in their dispatch area, a significant part of employees’ work includes physical tasks, such as manual lifting.
Exoskeletons are one option for employers to consider when looking for solutions that can support human capabilities in a positive way. The study found that, wearable measurement devices provided a good way to identify and monitor work phases that were the most strenuous. That said, although exoskeletons help to reduce physical stress, they will not solve all the issues relating to ergonomics. To further ensure employee safety, clear and concise instructions for good ergonomics, regular breaks, as well as careful workplace and system design, will continue to be of critical importance also in the future.
European Agency for Safety and Health at Work (2019). The impact of using exoskeletons on occupational safety and health. Discussion paper. Available: The impact of using exoskeletons on occupational safety and health - Safety and health at work - EU-OSHA (europa.eu)
European Agency for Safety and Health at Work & Istituto Nazionale per l’Assicurazione contro gli Infortuni sul Lavoro (INAIL) (2020): Occupational exoskeletons: Wearable robotic devices to prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace of the future. Discussion paper. Available: Occupational exoskeletons: wearable robotic devices and preventing work-related musculoskeletal disorders in the workplace of the future - Safety and health at work - EU-OSHA (europa.eu)
Patrikainen, T. 2020. Upper extremity workload in bakery’s dispatch department- Wearable technology for assessing physical workload. Faculty of Sport and Health Sciences, University of Jyväskylä, Sport and Exercise Medicine Master’s thesis, 54 pp., 2 appendices.
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