The future is now for lifting on construction sites
For employees at Whitaker/Ellis Builders Inc., a Tigard-based concrete contractor, it's not uncommon to have to bend and lift up to 150 pounds while building concrete slabs, 50-foot walls, columns and other structures that require heavy lifting and strenuous labor — often during bad weather and unstable ground conditions.
"About 10 percent of our injuries are strains and sprains, and most of those are back sprains," said Randy Johnson, the company's safety director. "Our construction athletes work hard every day and are in tremendous shape typically, and they can have a tendency to overdo it and have a bad strain."
Nationally, construction laborers experienced about 250 incidents per 10,000 FTE employees in 2019 — an increase from the previous year. Construction ranks fifth on the list of the 10 occupations with the highest incidence rates of workplace injuries, according to data published in 2020 by the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.
Scott Clark, safety innovation and technology advisor for SAIF Corp., has specialized in workplace safety for about 25 years and said that over that span of time, strains and sprains have consistently topped the list of on-the-job injuries. While measures such as fall protection, safety glasses and hard hats have helped prevent other types of injuries, it's been more challenging to find ways to reduce strains and sprains.
"What we see is employers have a difficult time when they refine their safety programs because sprains and strains are really hard to get to," he said.
So when prototypes of exoskeletons, or "exosuits," designed specifically for construction workers began to emerge, Clark and others in the safety field were excited to learn more.
"They're real early on the innovation curve right now, but it looks promising," he said.
SAIF Corp., which provides workers compensation insurance and workplace safety services for Oregon employers and claim management for injured workers, teamed with the Associated General Contractors Oregon-Columbia Chapter to begin a pilot project to test the exosuits.
Clark said it was important to work with a company with a strong safety culture, so he approached Johnson about testing the exosuits with workers at Whitaker/Ellis. The pilot has focused on the HeroWear Apex, a back-assist exosuit designed to reduce more than 75 pounds of strain on the back with a dual-mode switch that turns back assistance on or off with the click of a button.
Johnson said that while there are most likely other exosuits in development, the Apex is the first to be tested in construction.
"I jumped at the opportunity because it seemed very exciting and like a good idea to me," he said, adding the company began what was initially intended to be a six-week pilot but extended it into July because they wanted to test it further.
For the initial phase of the pilot, Whitaker/Ellis tested the exosuits on 15 workers with a split between cement masons, laborers and carpenters.
"We had vastly different results with each trade," Johnson noted.
Carpenters, who often work in higher spaces, wear fall protection harnesses with an integrated toolbelt. Unfortunately, the exosuit interfered with the harness so the carpenters did not experience as much benefit as the laborers and cement masons who work on the ground.
Whitaker/Ellis also tested the exosuit among younger employees and older professionals.
"The data shows that the older employees were more receptive to the exosuit and used it more often and saw more benefits. The younger guys didn't feel like it was worth the hassle, but they haven't had a back injury yet," Johnson said.
Another factor was employees' willingness to embrace change and buy-in for testing the new technology.
"The ones who didn't have their heart in it and feel it was worth it didn't wear it as much," he said, adding that workers were not required to participate in the pilot or wear the exosuit at all, but those who did were asked to provide feedback.
"We identified some manufacturing defects early on, and HeroWear was very responsive to fix those," Johnson said. "Our guys are really rough with tools and equipment because of the nature of the work and they work really hard, so we thrash stuff pretty quickly and regularly."
He said he has learned a lot during the pilot beyond what he expected. As an example, people testing the exosuits were more aware of their posture and the position of their body when they were bending and lifting, so it was a good reminder about proper lifting technique and taking care of their back while working.
"The funnest part for me was I got to make new friends and everybody has the same safety focus of preventing back injuries. It was exciting to me because it's rare to have a new tool that prevents back injuries rather than treating them afterwards," Johnson said.
Clark said the testing and peer review of the exosuit shows that it does reduce fatigue, and SAIF Corp. is exploring how to implement them more broadly. He will spend the coming months presenting results from the pilot at conferences, webinars and other activities as part of an education campaign. Exosuits also are being tested in nurseries and landscaping as well as the retail sector.
"What we find is that most people don't know that's an option," he said, adding there are limited models on the market now, but he expects that to change drastically over the next five years. "There is such a huge need out there and this is only going to continue to grow."
AN EXOSUIT HOW-TO
Scott Clark, safety innovation and technology advisor for SAIF Corp., shared these best practices for exosuit implementation in the workplace:
Where to start
- Don't skip the hierarchy of controls! — Exoskeletons are considered PPE and are therefore one of the last lines of defense. Start with identifying where the biggest exposures to back and/or shoulder are and assess those areas to identify if there are ways to better protect employees from hazard (i.e. equipment to lift heavy items, change in work practices, etc.). An exosuit should be considered when higher controls aren't feasible.
- Ask employees —Â What are the jobs that result in the most back and/or shoulder fatigue?
- Injury history — Review OSHA 300 log and incident reports for areas employees have sustained strain/sprain injuries.
- JSA's — Review job safety analysis to pinpoint areas of ergonomic concern.
Match to best-fit job tasks
- Jobs with heavy or repetitive lifting
- Work that involves sustained work in bent-over posture
- Work tasks that are concentrated in one area vs. across an entire job site
- Avoid jobs that have conflicting PPE (fall protection, some tool bags) in the initial pilot implementation.
- Ensure that the exosuit does not present a safety hazard — particularly snagging on moving equipment.
Position for success
- Safety culture — It's important to have well-honed safety culture in place before venturing into the world of exosuits. If there are outstanding safety concerns or issues, shore those up first.
- Start small — Identify a few key job tasks and pilot those areas first for a set duration. We suggest three months.
- Volunteers — Capture the energy of enthusiastic employees and start with those who actively would like to try out the exosuit.
- Site manager — Outfit the site manager with a suit to gain additional buy-in and provide context for how the exosuit works. Having a routine feedback loop is critical.
- Buddy system — Deploy exosuits in clusters to allow employees working together to share successes and challenges amongst one another.
- Accessibility — Exosuits are not likely to be worn all day long, but when an employee needs it, it needs to be close by. Make sure there's a plan in place on where to store the exos for easy access.
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