It’s just a matter of time until construction companies, labor unions, insurance underwriters and government organizations such as the Occupational Safety & Health Administration begin mandating the use of exoskeletons for workers wherever a job with heavy lifting or awkward work conditions might cause injury or worse.
Preventing unnecessary injuries, possible deaths, massive insurance claims, and scads of lawsuits makes sense to everyone associated when putting up residences, schools, or commercial buildings or in the stock yards of countless materials suppliers where heavy lifting is a daily trial.
It’s not news that construction work is dangerous and that more safety measures are needed for workers. A recent study, “Longitudinal Study of Construction Worker Health Across a Lifespan,” details the risks:
“The average age of construction workers jumped to 41.5 years in 2010, two years older than in 2007, and 5.5 years older than 25 years ago. Demographic changes are reflected in the injury data. The age group suffering the largest proportion of both fatal and nonfatal work injuries has shifted from those aged 25-34 years in 1992 to those aged 45-54 years in 2010.”
“The rate of work-related deaths steadily increases with age. Working primarily in construction trades exacerbates the usual decline in overall health, increasing likelihood of functional limitations, arthritis, back problems, chronic lung disease, and stroke in later years. The rate of work-related deaths steadily increases with age.”
A construction worker wearing an exosuit eliminates or lessens nearly all of the risks. It’s widespread use seems inevitable.
An exosuit is a striped down but powerful variant of the medical-grade exoskeleton; see: “Exoskeleton Revolution: From Rigid to Soft to Ultra Soft”
Exosuits on the job
Three Japanese companies, Kubota, Panasonic (via subsidiary ActiveLink (20% owned by Mitsui & Co.), and Cyberdyne, are ready to supply professional-grade “labor” exosuits to the construction industry.
Let’s not forget the Korean entry from mega-builder Daewoo Shipbuilding and Marine Engineering, which has already completed extensive on-the-job testing with its exosuit.
Daewoo workers were strapped into 62-lb., aluminum alloy, steel and carbon fiber suits called the RoboShipbuilder that supported their own weight plus an additional 66 pounds.
Daiwa Home Group, the mega-size Japanese construction firm — $26 billion in revenue for 2014 and 33,000 workers — is testing the Cyberdyne model, called the “HAL for Labor Support.” The trial period has nearly completed, and Daiwa, seeing the potential benefits, has already ordered some for 2016 delivery.
Akimichi Takada, a 52-year-old construction worker, said he likes what he’s wearing, as he tools around wearing a Hal suit on a Daiwa construction project. The suit doing heavy lifting for much of his day, reducing loads by 40%.
Daiwa also recognizes that the suit is as a good way to retain aging workers, which will help in alleviating labor shortages.
Takada’s Cyberdyne HAL for Labor Support robotic suit is worn around the waist and equipped with motor-driven arms to assist workers who have to frequently bend their knees and bodies to lift and carry weighty materials.
“Daiwa, which invests in Cyberdyne, an entrepreneurial spinoff from the University of Tsukuba, is carrying out tests and analyzing the data to identify procedures for which the power assist suit is most useful.” reported the Asahi Shimbun.
“I felt uncomfortable when I first wore the suit,” said Takada, who often carries long steel bars in the suit. “But it reduces my physical burden, and I now feel working in the suit is fun.”
In May, Cyberdyne exported its products overseas for the first time, after receiving inquiries from Germany and France.
In September 2015, Panasonic will market its wearable robot, which is also designed to help warehouse and construction workers lift heavy objects.
The Panasonic exosuit is activated whenever a worker bends to lift an object. The suit’s motor starts and helps bring up the upper body, reducing strain on the back. The carbon-fiber exosuit weighs only 13 lb. and can carry up to 33 lb. Price: $8,000; battery charge: 8 hours.
Panasonic is also working on a next generation of wearable robots for release by 2020, with a lifting capacity to 176 lbs.
Kubota’s “unpowered” ARM-1, is also ready for market, and is expected to sell in about $1,200. The ARM-1 is billed as a productivity aid for fruit picking and any activity where a worker’s arms are held above his or her shoulders for extended periods.