Back to Basics: Wearables, Robotics, and Exoskeletons
New technologies such as wearables, robotics, and exoskeletons will likely have a huge effect on the work being done by EHS professionals. During the National Safety Council’s 2023 Workplace Safety Summit in June, Dr. John Howard, the Director of the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) spoke about sensors, robots, and exoskeletons, and how to introduce wearables into the workplace.
Howard stated that according to the theory of robotics, robots process information by first sensing, using data inputs from sensors, then thinking, using artificial intelligence, and then acting. There are two types of robots: steel-collar, which are physical devices, and white-collar, which are software programs like Alexa. According to data from the international Federation of Robotics, approximately 49,000 industrial robots were installed in North America in 2022.
Wearable devices are advanced sensor and computing technologies that a person can wear on their body during daily activity to generate, store, and transmit data, according to Howard. They have many industrial uses, including the following:
• Monitoring productivity
• Identifying and intervening on safety hazards or risks
• Providing augmented instruction to improve task management
• Facilitating health and wellness
There are several different kinds of sensors that all function differently to collect data. Placeable sensors are placed in and around the workplace to collect information from the ambient work environment. Wearable sensors can be attached to a worker’s clothing, head, arms or wrists, upper or lower body, the ear canal, or feet, or they can be worn as computer-display eyeglasses or contact lenses. Wearables can also be attached or embedded inside equipment to act as location and range sensors, proprioceptive sensors, or force and torque sensors.
Electronic textiles are sensors that are woven into textiles that can be worn by a worker as clothing, and electronic epidermal wearables are sensors incorporated in thin, skin-like films or tattoos that can be applied directly to the epidermis. There are also implantable sensors that can be inserted into the skin via microneedles or microchips, or by ingesting them.
The market for wearable devices is growing exponentially, despite adoption concerns like the collection of data that could compromise employee privacy and confidentiality, said Howard. Others are hesitant because of factors such as sensor durability, employee compliance, the cost/benefit ratio of using wearables, and good manufacturing requirements.
According to Howard, a survey by Liberty Mutual measured the worker response to wearable devices, and while some were concerned that wearables might create new safety hazards, collect inaccurate data, or decrease productivity, the majority of concerns revolved around privacy. According to the data, 24% were concerned that someone who was not intended to see their data might get access to it, 25% were concerned that their employer might have access to private or sensitive information about the employee, and 36% were worried that information might be used against them by their employer, supervisor, or coworkers.
There are several different types of steel-collar robots, Howard said. Assembly line robots that are fixed in one location and they are separated from doing tasks with humans. Collaborative robots, or “cobots,” which are newer technology, are designed to work together with humans. The most common cobot is a mobile arm manipulator designed to work alongside human workers. They are controlled by human workers, an algorithm, or both, and are designed and outfitted with sensors designed to stop the robot when contact with the human employee occurs, though collisions are possible.
Service robots, such as autonomous ground vehicles, unmanned aerial vehicles, and household service robots. Autonomous service robots can be merely supervised, remotely controlled by a human operator, or completely independent. Examples of this include robot trucks and self-driving vehicles. Howard stated that in the next few years, people may have the experience of pulling alongside a fully loaded semi-truck and seeing no one behind the wheel. In fact, some companies say they expect the first trucks without drivers on highways in the U.S. by the end of 2023.
Social or humanoid robots which can detect human emotion and act as companions can be used for child education, social interaction at senior living residences, in healthcare settings, and as multi-lingual assistants. There are also wearable robots, like exoskeletons and exosuits.
In biology, exoskeletons are there to support and protect an animal’s body, and industrial exoskeletons are meant to function similarly. By definition, they are external devices that augment, amplify, or reinforce the performance of an employee’s existing body components, Howard said.
There are two main types of exoskeletons: active and passive. Active exoskeletons are powered through actuators such as electric motors, pneumatics, hydraulics, or a combination of those technologies, and they are often known as “robotic exoskeletons.” Passive exoskeletons are powered by natural human movement and use springs and counterbalancing forces. They can provide back, shoulder, arm, and leg support, as well as tool holding and support.
The purpose of wearable industrial exoskeletons is once again to help enhance the performance of the human body, and the promise of this technology is that they will potentially play a positive role in reducing the work-related MSDs associated with lifting and handling heavy materials, or from supporting heavy tools in overhead work. Currently, exoskeleton devices are being introduced and trial across several different industry sectors, including in the car and air manufacturing, construction, and wholesale and retail trade sectors.
Benefits and risks
There are many advantages to employing robots to do labor at an organization, said Howard. Robots are better than human workers at routine, precise, or repetitive tasks, and at finding patterns in thousands of dimensions. They can also do hazardous work instead of people, or augment the human worker’s natural abilities.
Robots are better at managerial tasks, and are able to do the following:
• Remind a team of deadlines, procedures, and progress
• Keep perfect records of project progress
• Provide real-time scheduling and decision support
• Demonstrate perfect recall
Additionally, robots come with lower operational costs than human workers. According to Howard, it costs about $8 an hour to use a robot for spot welding in the auto industry, compared to $25 for a human worker. Robots also eliminate the need to pay benefits to human employees.
However, there are risks that come with implementing the use of robots in the workplace. For instance, the likelihood of robot-related human worker physical contact injuries will increase. Robots with dynamic machine learning capabilities can challenge static safety procedures, and rapid advances in robot and sensor technology will outpace national standards and the speed at which standards are set.
Wearables in the workplace
On the hierarchy of controls, wearables and robotics could be considered either engineering controls or personal protective equipment (PPE), depending on the context. When introducing wearables into the workplace, employers should first define the safety need for the wearable, said Howard. Then, identify the device features that are required to achieve safety goals. Another factor to consider is whether or not the information collected aids the worker in doing the job more safely, or just the employer.
Lastly, employers must determine the impact of the device by asking themselves the following:
• Does the implemented technology align with safety objectives?
• Does it help the bottom line?
• Do workers see the advantages, or just supervisors?
• What is the likelihood of widespread adoption by employees?
• Are there legal or regulatory obstacles?
According to Howard, there are a few regulations that employers must be aware of. The main regulator of wearables is the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA), because they regulate medical devices, and an exoskeleton on a disabled worker, who might also be a patient, is considered a medical device. OSHA has yet to develop a specific standard, due to the technologies outpacing the standard setting process.
In terms of U.S. National Consensus standards, ASTM F48 is the one that covers exoskeletons and exosuits. It was formed in 2017 to develop voluntary consensus standards for exoskeletons and exosuits, and it has six technical subcommittees that develop and maintain standards.