Editorial Feature

Exoskeletons to Reduce Back Injury

Dr Leonard O’Sullivan, Team Leader for a ground-breaking project at the University of Limerick is set to research human–robot interaction with the aim of helping to reduce back injury among workers in industrial settings.

On an annual scale, lower back pain (LBP) among workers across Europe has cost the European Union an estimated 240 billion euros.

According to recent statistics by the Health and Safety Executive, out of 1,073,000 of all work-related illnesses, there were a total of 439,000 musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) in Great Britain reported in 2011/2012.

What is striking about these statistics is that the industrial sectors reporting the highest rates of total MSD cases included post and courier tasks, construction activities and agricultural work – all activities that would require manual handling of heavy goods.

There is an increasing amount of effort to help tackle the issue of workplace injuries and, in an ageing population where the retirement age is now extended, society needs to figure out the best solution for addressing how to prevent injury in industry and helping to reduce the annual costs of LBP on the EU economy.

It is also worth noting that the work environment will start to evolve quite rapidly with the introduction of automated technology to help increase production and accuracy in the manufacturing industry, and so this current project will help to identify the interactions between robots and humans required to minimize injury at work.

Dr. Leonard O’Sullivan, University of Limerick. Lead researcher on the study of human–robot interaction to minimise the risk of injury in industry.

Dr. Leonard O’Sullivan, University of Limerick. Lead researcher on the study of human–robot interaction to minimise the risk of injury in industry.

This project termed the ‘Robomate’ valued at €5.8 million, is part of a European Union project to address the issues of LBP and injury in industry. The team at Limerick University are involved in the design an exoskeleton model with the potential for industrial use. The concept exoskeleton body is designed to be suspected from the ceiling to help lift heavy items and take care of the balance of the skeleton.

The handlers to this exoskeleton are intelligent devices and actuators with the ability to perform object classification with adaptation capabilities. Structural parts and assisted actuation helps hold together the overall structure of the exoskeleton with intelligent sensor nodes. With involvement from 11 industry and academic partners, this exoskeleton is set to be a key focus for the future handling of heavy goods in factories across Europe.

In an industry where workers suffer fatigue and back injuries, the introduction of an automated mechanical structure that can absorb the strain of a heavy object will most certainly lead our industrial world into a new era of work. It will be interesting to see how this exoskeleton, if one day introduced into industry, will lead to productivity gains.

Sources and Further Reading

  • Exoskeleton model – description provided by Dr Leonard O’Sullivan, University of Limerick.

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