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Everyone’s talking about exoskeletons – but do they live up to their hype?

Date posted
14 December 2023
Dr Laura Bradshaw
Estimated reading time
4 minute read

The exoskeleton presents the picture of a futuristic workplace where wearable devices are helping workers carry out certain tasks more safely. But does this tell the whole story on worker wellbeing? IOSH Research Programme Lead Dr Laura Bradshaw takes a closer look.

The exoskeleton presents the picture of a futuristic workplace where wearable devices are helping workers carry out certain tasks more safely. But does this tell the whole story on worker wellbeing? IOSH Research Programme Lead Dr Laura Bradshaw takes a closer look.

In this transformational era, where emerging technologies are seemingly taking over the workplace, the concept of the exoskeleton feels futuristic.

Yet, exoskeletons are not new. Their concept was first introduced back in 1966 (Dahmen et al., 2018). Exoskeletons are wearable devices that enhance or support the strength of the user (EU-OSHA, 2019). Research defines exoskeletons and exoskeletal robots as “wearable devices based on a mechanical structure that conceptually mirrors the skeletal structure of a limb or the involved body part” (Tiboni et al., 2022).

They are body-worn, physically supporting technical assistance systems used to facilitate human movements for comfort purposes. They have the potential to reduce load peaks, such as: when lifting heavy or bulky loads; pushing, pulling or dragging heavy loads; with bending, crouching, stooping, stretching, twisting and reaching; or with sustained or heavy, excessive force.

Whilst potentially helpful, however, exoskeletons are commonly overrated, misplaced and implemented too quickly into the working world (Lechner, 2022).

What are the advantages of using an exoskeleton?

Exoskeletons can be used to support workers with, or prevent them from getting musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs). MSDs are disorders of the musculoskeletal system, spine, joints, muscles, tendons and ligaments, which can be caused or aggravated by work, or as a result of accidents. Physical, psychosocial, organisational and individual factors can contribute to their development.

Different types of exoskeleton are used for different purposes. For example, assistive exoskeletons can be used by elderly or permanently injured people to help them with daily activities such as walking, grasping, eating and handling objects (Tiboni, 2022). But smart, adaptive exoskeletons can be used to provide more natural, intuitive movement and provide support using sensors and machine learning algorithms to adapt to the user’s movement.

Exoskeletons are designed to mechanically reduce the load while allowing the user to move freely and safely with reduced risk of pain. The reduction in work related injury costs is significant: “Across the whole EU, with a population of 500 million, the annual cost savings could reach EUR four billion” (EC, 2019).

What concerns are there around using exoskeletons in the workplace?

Exoskeletons are heavily promoted as an opportunity to prevent MSDs, but their benefit is not scientifically proven (Lechner, 2022). The potential impact of using exoskeletons is both positive and negative. They can promote stress reduction, compensate for declining abilities and optimise the work process. They offer the chance to reduce physical stress on the body and enable changes in movement execution. Exoskeletons are customisable and offer local flexibility, and while exoskeletons can enhance safety in various applications, it's essential to note that their effectiveness depends on factors such as design quality, user training, routine maintenance and adherence to safety protocols.

There may be questions around whether exoskeletons pose a risk in emergency situations such as evacuations or the quick removal of protective gear, where workers need to act quickly. For example, with evacuations for fire or gas leakages. In these emergency situations, response times are crucial and any delays or complications in disengaging the exoskeleton could pose risks to workers.

What future considerations for health and safety are there for organisations using exoskeletons in the workplace?

Exoskeletons have potential benefits in the workplace, but organisations must consider various factors before implementing them. They should monitor effectiveness, provide proper employee training, ensure comfort for extended use, evaluate cost-effectiveness, comply with legal regulations and consider ethical implications. While exoskeletons have shown promise in reducing physical strain and improving safety, their effectiveness in real-world workplace settings is still being studied.

Organisations should carefully assess whether they will provide a significant return on investment. For further information, the EU-OSHA campaign on digitalisation draws from research on digitalisation and emerging technologies that have an impact on the workplace. An EU-OSHA 2019 discussion paper on ‘The impact of using Exoskeletons on Occupational Safety and Health’ provides comprehensive analysis of the potential impact of using these innovative technologies.

Last updated: 31 January 2024

Dr Laura Bradshaw

Job role
Research Programme Lead


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