Wearables, Exoskeletons and Body Sensors: How Technology Is Changing Ergonomics

By: | June 15, 2020

Kevin Lombardo is the president and chief executive officer of DORN Companies. DORN has been keeping people out of the healthcare and workers compensation systems through its onsite therapy, education, ergonomic and technology solutions. Kevin leads the strategy development of DORN and oversees focus on developing innovative solutions for pain mitigation, with an emphasis on reducing organizations’ future costs with evidence based, result-oriented programs. He can be reached at [email protected].

In recent years, the American workplace has experienced a seismic shift in working style and how employers manage the safety of their teams.

Technology has simultaneously opened the door to more flexible jobs and empowered safety professionals to offer responsive, adaptive support for workers wherever they are.

Ergonomics tech lies at the heart of this evolution, becoming more and more important as employers look to solutions that support both at-home and on-site workers through virtual training and assessment, data collection, and wearable equipment.

Ergonomic Injuries Impose Serious Costs

The human and financial costs of injuries that stem from poor ergonomic practices are well-documented. Broadly, ergonomics-related injuries account for a third of all work-related cases of injury and illness, levying some $15-20 billion in direct costs each year. On a per-case basis, these injuries carry hefty price tags from workers’ compensation claims and treatment. Back injuries can infer direct costs of up to $80,000 per case, plus the time lost to recovery and work hardening.

Carpal tunnel syndrome, likewise, affects nearly 2 million workers per year at an average cost of at least $47,000, leading to nearly half a million orthopedic surgeries, according to the Centers for Disease Control. CTS is particularly illustrative because it can affect so many types of workers, from home-office-based desktop employees to frontline workers in manufacturing, shipping, and industrial settings.

Leveraging Technology to Gather Ergonomic Data

In the context of ergonomics, monitoring is essential for creating a picture of how the work affects individual employee health and behavior. Cloud-based software has offered transformative ergonomics data access for employers and safety managers, providing a foundational understanding of the ergonomic forces in the work environment.

This level of analysis is critical for enterprises looking to adopt effective ergonomics solutions that target their specific areas of need.

Recently, advanced analytical tools powered by artificial intelligence have begun to help safety professionals develop predictive models that inform preventative strategies for individual workers, departments, and the entire organization.

Wearable Devices Strengthen Safety Programs and Individual Workers

Many organizations have dramatically reduced their rates of worker injuries by implementing wearable devices that collect a wealth of data on employee risk factors, including exertion levels, alertness, and fatigue.

Wrist-mounted alertness monitors, for example, have been used to great effect in manufacturing and mining settings, where employees face strenuous work and high levels of injury risk when alertness drops.

These can be paired with graphical testing solutions that determine an employee’s fatigue risk with a brief exercise performed on a device like a tablet or smartphone.

Other options for employees working high-exertion jobs include sensor-embedded work suits that measure muscular energy output in real time using surface electromyography.

This allows managers to develop a detailed profile of each worker and each job, exposing tasks that lead to dangerous employee behavior, fatigue, and overexertion injuries such as MSDs and RSIs.

Some organizations, particularly companies involved in heavy manufacturing or industrial work, have begun to introduce wearable devices that actively increases workers’ strength and resilience as they perform their tasks.

Exoskeleton tech in particular has emerged as an effective way of providing real-time physical support during high-exertion motions, such as reaching overhead, bending the neck or shoulders upward, and lifting, carrying, pulling, or pushing heavy objects.

Technologies like these have demonstrated incredible success in improving employee morale, mitigating risks of injury and chronic pain, and reducing work time lost to recovery.

Case Study: Ergonomics Tech Boosts Productivity, Health, and Morale at an Aviation Plant

An aircraft manufacturer in Kansas discovered the benefits of ergonomic technology when they developed a plan to tackle high rates of overexertion injuries and chronic pain.

The unique work environment at the plant required employees to work alongside or underneath aircraft fuselage, often reaching overhead to perform welding, installation, or finishing tasks for long periods of time.

The continuous reach was creating back, neck, and shoulder problems for employees, who reported high levels of pain after work and on off-days that materially interfered with their lives.

The answer came in the form of modular ergonomic exoskeletons, designed to augment workers’ natural strength and provide support for the upper extremities. These tools are worn on the torso and feature small metal or plastic rests under the arm and behind the head.

By wearing the suits, employees found it much easier to reach or look overhead for the time required for their tasks, thanks to the extra support that removed most of the exertion from the muscles and placed the load on the exoskeleton.

Following several months of the exoskeleton program, the aircraft manufacturer reported reduced rates of MSDs and RSIs, especially those to the neck and upper extremities, saving hundreds of thousands of dollars or more on claims costs.

In many cases, preventing just one injury can pay for the initial safety investment. Even better, employee morale spiked when the exoskeletons become available, with workers feeling much more able to enjoy recreational activities and time with family.

Ergonomics and Remote Worker Safety

According to a recent analysis of remote work trends by SmallBizGenius, some 4.3 million people across America work from home at least half of the time, an increase of 140% from 2005.

Huge portions of modern enterprises conduct their business digitally, and many organizations have begun allowing more of their workers to telecommute to help cut overhead costs.

The change doesn’t come without risk. Having employees on-site during business hours allows safety managers to keep tabs on various sources of injury risk that workers face every day.

When employees stay home, that level of engagement and reinforcement disappears, leaving risk managers to seek out new tools for monitoring ergonomic indicators and preventing injuries.

The most common injuries that remote workers experience—chiefly musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) and repetitive strain injuries (RSIs)—are also among the costliest, even in a category rife with expensive and disruptive injuries.

Virtual ergonomics hold great promises for most workforces, offering risk management even in situations where employees are home-based or remote.

Ergonomic assessments can easily be performed via the Internet using video conference apps, essentially bringing an ergonomist into the home of each employee to evaluate risk levels in this less regulated work environment.

Even through a computer screen, a certified ergonomic specialist can address risk-producing problems like workstation design, seating arrangements, monitor positioning, and other factors that tend to contribute to ergonomic injuries or chronic fatigue.

Virtual ergonomic solutions can provide persistent reinforcement of safe postures and behaviors directly through the employee’s computer, thanks to software that helps employees self-assess and self-correct.

Particularly useful for desk-based workers, these technologies offer safety professionals robust tools for adapting an entire enterprise to new stressors and risks.

Technology Is Now Inseparable from Ergonomics

The changing nature of work has spurred many questions about how safety professionals can maintain acceptable levels of risk when employees are working off-site all or most of the time.

With more and more organizations letting workers stay at home, it will become crucial for managers to look to technology that provides ergonomic support for remote workers.

Still, the majority of workers, especially in manufacturing, will continue to work on-site, and safety managers should be incorporating every technology available, including wearables and rich data analysis, to curb injury risks, preserve a healthy bottom line, and nurture a culture of workplace safety. &

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