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Pinnacol introduces exoskeletons to Colorado workers

April 19, 2023
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Manual labor is an essential part of many Colorado industries, including manufacturing, construction, warehousing, and logistics. But the physical demands of these jobs can take a toll on workers, leading to fatigue, injuries, and long-term health issues. 

To address these challenges, Pinnacol’s Safety Team is partnering with several Colorado companies to pilot exoskeletons. These wearable devices can provide support and assistance to workers, keeping them safe and reducing the risk of injuries. 

“The research on exoskeletons was promising, so we wanted to see how they worked in the real world,” said Kevin Simonton, Pinnacol Senior Human Performance Specialist. “Does this technology do what it claims to do?”

Before we dig into the pilot programs, let’s find out a bit more about exoskeletons.

What are Exoskeletons?

Exoskeletons, also known as exosuits or exos, are devices that are worn on the outside of the body to amplify, reinforce, or restore human performance. Exoskeletons used for industrial applications are designed to reinforce the user's abilities by augmenting the worker's musculoskeletal system, making it easier for them to perform physically demanding tasks. 

There are two primary categories of exoskeletons:

  • Passive, providing mechanical assistance, or
  • Active, using powered motors to amplify the user's movements.

They can be full-body suits or partial suits that focus on specific body parts, such as the back, shoulders, or knees.

Pinnacol’s Exoskeleton Pilot

Pinnacol selected passive “back” exoskeletons produced by Herowear. Some of the unique features of the HeroWear exo:

  • Simple, lightweight and easy to clean
  • Passive, low-tech, no battery packs or charging necessary
  • Totally customizable, with fits for men and women
“The exoskeleton we chose functions as an extra set of back muscles for the wearer,” said Simonton.

During the most recent pilot, several workers at Pinkard Construction, a 60-year-old construction company based in Lakewood, used the exoskeletons for tasks like concrete formwork, lifting doors and heavy objects, and shoveling dirt.

After the six-week pilot program, we surveyed employees with questions such as:

  • How much effort do you use on strenuous lifts before and after using the exosuit? 
  • Is the exo reducing the amount of effort? 
  • Would you like to continue using the device?
  • What did you like and what didn't you like? 

Because of the duration of the pilot, we can’t know if the devices will prevent injuries over the long term. But the qualitative employee feedback was promising. Four out of the five workers said they would continue to use the device if possible. And some employees found it indispensable. 

“Damn good product. I was skeptical at first, but I felt relief in my back after the first day I wore it. The assistance it provided when bending and squatting to perform ground-level work will prolong my career as a carpenter and concrete worker.”

How Exoskeletons Enhance Workplace Safety

Exoskeletons offer a range of benefits that can significantly enhance workplace safety for manual laborers. Here are some key advantages:

1. Reduced Risk of Musculoskeletal Injuries

Manual labor jobs often involve repetitive tasks or heavy lifting, which can put a strain on the body and increase the risk of musculoskeletal injuries. Exoskeletons can provide additional assistance to the user's muscles and joints, reducing the load on their body and minimizing the risk of injuries, such as strains, sprains, and tears.

2. Reduced Fatigue

By augmenting the low back muscles when bending and lifting, less muscle force is required by the exoskeleton user. This can result in increased muscle endurance and less whole-body fatigue. By preventing fatigue and overexertion, the exo reduces the risk of cumulative trauma disorders and accidents. 

3. Increased Productivity

Exoskeletons can help workers perform tasks more efficiently, which can lead to increased productivity. With the assistance of exoskeletons, workers can complete tasks faster and with less physical strain.

4. Customizable and Comfortable

The HeroWear Apex exosuit is designed to be adjustable and customizable to fit different body types and sizes. It's also designed to allow full range of motion while being lightweight and highly adjustable. 

“We’ve seen enough workplaces to know there’s no silver bullet to prevent musculoskeletal injuries,” said Simonton. “But if we can introduce Colorado employers to a new tool for their safety toolbelt, our state’s workers will be more likely to go home healthy at the end of their shift.”

Traditionally ergonomics in the workplace has focused on reducing the risk of musculoskeletal disorders through redesign of workstations, improvements in tools, and the use of mechanical lifting devices.  However, these types of engineering controls aren't always feasible, which is where exoskeletons can provide an alternative to fill the gap until engineering or process changes can be made.

As technology continues to advance, exoskeletons are becoming more accessible and affordable, making them a promising solution to enhance workplace safety and protect the health and well-being of manual laborers. Colorado employers and workers alike should consider the potential benefits of exoskeleton.

Learn more about the HeroWear back exoskeleton here.

Pinnacol Assurance assumes no responsibility for management or control of customer safety activities. Please ensure your business meets the requirements of all federal, state, and local laws, regulations, or ordinances related to workplace safety.

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