Lift and carry is one of the most common causes for back injury. This is an area where exoskeletons for work and industry can have a meaningful impact. This is not a new idea and for years exoskeleton researchers and developers have been trying to make a wearable that can decrease the risk of back pain and injury. What is new is the approach to lift and carry exoskeletons.
Defining the problem:
Lift and carry is safe as long as the spine is kept straight and the shoulders remain over the toes. When a person lifts using their back, the back muscles compress the spine that can result in an injury. Theoretically, as long as a person maintains constant proper technique, they should not experience any back pain.
Do people lift properly?
Observe the people around you. Are they following proper lifting technique? Does it appear they have enough strength to perform the lift without straining?
I have started to pay more attention to my surroundings and have began noticing people that can clearly benefit from a lift and carry exoskeleton. I was eating a bagel at Starbucks and I saw this giant truck pull to the curb. A single person came out, opened the back and started placing cases of water and soda three to four at a time on a dolly. He was in a hurry and looked stressed. The first two sets of cases were lowered on the dolly, then moved up on the curb and on the side of the truck. A third and fourth set were moved by hand and placed on the curb. Now here is the important part, in his hurry, the delivery person stood between the dolly and the two other stacks of drinks and started bending down diagonally on one side and lifting the cases up on the dolly stack while rotating all the way in the other direction. This was a dangerous lift done in a hurry.
Last week my grandmother had to stay in the hospital for several days. While she is better and is making a recovery, other patients in the room needed a lot of help getting in and out of bed. The nurses had to pick up the patients, at any time during the day and night from any angle, again and again and again. This made a huge impression on me. It didn’t matter who the medical nurse was or how big and fit they were, they had to lift the patients up, often from very uncomfortable angles due to the large size of the bed and all of the equipment surrounding it. And these were lifts performed under no pressure. There were other patients in neighboring rooms that had emergencies or were resisting. After two days in the hospital it became clear to me that the need for back protection for nurses was absolutely real.
Shift in strategy for lift and carry exoskeletons.
The two days in the hospital made a huge impression on me. There is a real need to protect the backs of our nurses, and that is where lift and carry exoskeletons have their beginning. Some of the first exoskeletons to help with lifting were designed for nurses to carry patients. The main country of origin was Japan, a land with a rapidly aging population and a love for robotics. Made between 1990 to 2005, these early devices were very large with multiple actuators.
Years of research into lift and carry exoskeletons caused a shift in the thinking of how to approach the problem. Large, multi-actuator exoskeletons could definitely lift patients, but the wearable robots were heavy, difficult to power, complicated and extremely expensive. It was clear that a different approach was needed.
There are some companies that are still experimenting with large exoskeletons for lift & carry. The most recent example being the Hyundai Wearable Robot. However, the vast majority of exoskeleton developers are shifting their approach to the problem. Most companies now are developing smaller powered exoskeletons that provide actuation only at the back or hips. Other exo developers are simplifying their devices even further by removing the actuators with springs or other elastic elements that can store energy. These exoskeletons only add energy to help with the lift, not perform it. StrongArm Technologies has made an even simpler exosuit that doesn’t allow the user to attempt an unsafe lift but provides no boost during a lift. For more on all of these exoskeletons refer to exoskeletons for work and industry.
Forward looking statement:
Ideally, there should be some sort of a guide that links different kinds of needs to relevant exoskeleton products. This could be a book or even an interactive website. For example, imagine you are a rehabilitation center looking for a medical exoskeleton (42+ choices), that is for lower extremities (25+ choices). You also want the patient to take it home and use it while in the presence of a spotter and they live in the USA (2 choices).
The need for lift and carry exoskeletons is real. Challenge yourself to observe the people around you. If you have deliveries made to your company pay attention to how the items are carried. If you are at a store, watch how it is being restocked. You might be surprised just how many people could benefit from an exoskeleton that can protect their back or provide a power assist.
Wearable Power Assist Suit (designed to meet the requirements of the elderly), 1990 to 2005, Dr. Keijirou Yamamoto, Kanagawa Institute of Technology, Robotics and Mechatronics, Japan
USA Labor Poster describing lifting do’s and don’ts via WestSide Environmental