By Elyse Scalia, MEng ’23 (ME/Biomechanics)This op-ed is recognized as an Honorable Mention in the annual Berkeley MEng op-ed contest and part of a series from E295: Communications for Engineering Leaders. In this course, Master of Engineering students were challenged to communicate a topic they found interesting to a broad audience of technical and non-technical readers. As an opinion piece, the views shared here are neither an expression of nor endorsed by UC Berkeley or the Fung Institute. The warehousing industry has seen rapid growth since before the pandemic, reaching peak employment to meet rising consumer demands. But the convenience and efficiency of e-commerce comes at a human cost, often placing warehouse employees in dangerous situations. As poor work conditions gained public attention and the number of reported injuries increased, Amazon pledged to become “Earth’s safest place to work,” aiming to cut worker injuries by 50% in 2021 . However, regardless of the changes that companies make to improve workplace safety, the ergonomic challenges of industrial jobs remain. Serious injuries caused by negligence can be prevented, but the nature of warehouse work causes long-term health issues as an inevitable consequence of performing repetitive motions. There is an immediate need for a long-term solution that safety regulations alone cannot achieve, and wearable exoskeletons offer a promising solution. At a glance, warehouse workers are expected to prepare orders, organize facilities, and manage inventory, sometimes while operating machinery. Under oversight by the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), companies are subjected to strict regulations that protect workers, yet workplace injuries in the US still surpassed 200,000 in 2019 . While the cause and type of injury may vary, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) often develop or worsen as a result of activities like lifting heavy objects, performing overhead work, or executing repetitive motion . These behaviors may seem routine in the workplace, but they can cause pain and damage to body tissues as the motions are repeated throughout a person’s lifetime. Activities done in non-neutral postures are a major culprit of lower back pain, affecting the surrounding muscles, ligaments, and intervertebral discs of the spine. OSHA limits the weight of heavy objects that can be lifted in the workplace, but the motion of bending forward alone is enough to cause strain: even without lifting anything, the upper body weight is large enough to produce a substantial muscle force at the lumbar vertebrae when a person bends. What makes this simple motion so harmful in the long-term is the repetition, causing prolonged activation of muscle forces at the lower back. According to experts, chronic work-related injuries stem from a “complex interaction of events that accumulate over time” .
“This accumulated loading leads to tissue damage and pain, causing thousands of people each year to take time off from work to treat or recover from work-related MSDs.”Given this information, it is evident that imposing a regulation to preserve workers’ long-term back health is not feasible, as the damage is not caused by a single instance but by an accumulation of necessary behaviors. Fortunately, trunk-support exoskeletons offer a wearable intervention to prevent lower back disorders. For instance, backX is an exoskeleton manufactured by Bay Area start-up company suitX that aims to preserve lower back health. It functions by providing a resistance force to counter the upper body weight, supporting the torso by a chest plate when the user bends forward to lift an object. By compensating for the torque due to weight, backX minimizes activity of the erector spinae muscle at the inner back, thus reducing the damage that develops from repeating this motion . Although backX’s development is still recent, experimental data has shown an improvement in endurance time for a user that performed repetitive lifting while wearing the exoskeleton . The device is also advanced enough to provide different levels of resistance depending on how far forward the user bends and is carefully designed to allow the full range of normal motion without impeding walking, sitting, or stair climbing. Despite this evidence, only a fraction of companies that rely on warehouse labor have adopted wearable exoskeletons. While several major companies including Ford, Toyota, and Boeing have begun to provide exoskeletons and receive positive employee feedback, several limiting factors prevent this technology from becoming an industry norm . One major factor is cost: a single backX exoskeleton costs about $4,000, and considering that the number of US warehouse employees exceeds 2 million, it would be incredibly difficult to accommodate all employees [3,10]. Additionally, this technology is still novel, and it is challenging to convince employers of its benefits to the company In response, suitX is continuing their development on existing exoskeletons to improve their accessibility and affordability. Studies evaluating the effectiveness of backX have shown that as muscle activation is reduced, the time that the user can comfortably stay in a back-straining posture is increased . Combined with positive user feedback, these short-term studies show that the device is effective at improving comfort and well-being in a physically intensive environment. As is the case with all new technology, providing exoskeletons will be a large initial investment, but it is an investment in the employees’ health which should not be sacrificed. As part of a UC Berkeley capstone team working with suitX, I have observed the ongoing improvements that more attention and resources can bring to this developing technology. Our team is working on a new backX design to reduce the weight and cost of manufacturing, addressing some of the barriers that stand in the way of their practical commercialization. With society still heavily depending on manual labor, it is imperative to address the health issues that plague employees in a strenuous industry that only continues to grow. We must invest more into this technology to improve the safety and sustainability of e-commerce, starting with the warehouse workers that make it all possible. References  Annierpalmer. (2022, April 12). Amazon warehouse workers suffer serious injuries at twice the rate of rivals, study finds. CNBC. Retrieved November 11, 2022, from https://www.cnbc.com/2022/04/12/study-amazon-workers-suffer-serious-injuries-at-twice-rate-of-rivals.ht ml  Leonard, M. (2020, October 6). Warehouse employment is at an all-time high. Supply Chain Dive. Retrieved November 11, 2022, from https://www.supplychaindive.com/news/warehouse-employment-ecommerce-peak-season/586465/  Shankland, S. (2018, May 12). It’s not iron man, but this industrial exoskeleton will help you lift heavy packages and build a car. CNET. Retrieved November 11, 2022, from https://www.cnet.com/science/suitx-industrial-exoskeletons-amplify-human-strength/  Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, February 12). Work-related Musculoskeletal Disorders & Ergonomics. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved November 11, 2022, from https://www.cdc.gov/workplacehealthpromotion/health-strategies/musculoskeletal-disorders/index.html  Evaluation of trunk-supporting exoskeleton — sage journals. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2022, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1071181319631261  Evaluation of trunk-supporting exoskeleton — sage journals. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2022, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1071181319631261  Evaluation of a trunk supporting exoskeleton for reducing muscle fatigue — sage journals. (n.d.). Retrieved November 12, 2022, from https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1071181319631491 Connect with Elyse. Edited by Mary Tran.
Op-ed: Wearable exoskeletons to preserve warehouse workers’ health was originally published in Berkeley Master of Engineering on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.