Exoskeletons were hailed as the future of manual labor. But two recent studies show exoskeleton technology creates new problems for workers by straining muscles and impairing the mental abilities of workers.
These issues with exoskeletons may increase costs for employers by leading to more and more costly work injuries. Here is why I believe this to be true.
Causing back injuries to prevent arm injuries?
A study by Ohio State shows mechanical arms used to prevent arm injuries, increases back strain.
In terms of Nebraska workers compensation, this means increasing the chance of a non-scheduled injury to prevent a scheduled member injury. In plain terms, employers are increasing the chance of having to pay claims on back injuries which pay more than arm injuries. Arm injuries are paid on impairment or physical damage. While this ultimately decided by a judge, it usually hinges on an impairment rating from a doctor.
In contrast a back injury is paid on how the injury effects a workers ability to earn wages. This usually leads to more compensation. Back injuries are also paid for a longer time period, 300 weeks, than arm injuries that are paid for 175 or 225 weeks depending on whether they are below or at or above the elbow
Causing definite accidents trying to prevent overuse injuries?
A joint study by Texas A&M and Ohio State showed that an exoskeleton designed to minimize low back strain decreased mental processing. This could make single occurrence accidents more likely to happen.
A single accident claim from a slip, fall, being struck by an object or having a body part caught in a machine is generally an easier legal case to make that an injury that comes on from overuse. Overuse injuries are easier to defend than traditional accident claims because there is often a question of when the injury happens. I believe its easier to attribute other causes to overuse injuries. Additionally, I think its easier for employers to argue lack of notice defenses about overuse injuries.
Re-thinking skilled work and technology
One drawback to exoskeletons at their current level is their interference with the cognitive functions of workers. Workers who do manual labor or work in production who would use exoskeletons are often deemed to be unskilled or at best semi-skilled. But devices that interfere with the mental functions of these workers show the mental acuity needed to do supposedly low-skilled jobs.
I wrote about exoskeletons in the workplace six years ago. I surmised the technology could cause some new types of injuries, but thought if use properly, the devices could help accommodate injured and physically impaired workers. In late, 2015, engineers thought fully functional exoskeletons in the workplace would be a reality by 2030. So maybe, the technology will be functional by then. So it should not be surprising exoskeletons are not an effective workplace technology in 2022.