Technology continues aim at improving workplace safety – but at what cost?

[fa icon="calendar'] Oct 26, 2016 3:35:45 PM / by Deborah Lechner

Just as the pedometer took over the workplace wellness initiatives of recent years, wearable technologies continue to make their way into the industrial workplace. In 2015, we reviewed some of the latest tools to be developed in an effort to increase workplace safety. As with everything else technology-related these days, the creation of these tools moves fast and furious, and there is already a slew of new tech-based tools appearing in factories worldwide, as recently noted by the Wall Street Journal.

These pieces of tech-enabled gear, including the Robo-Glove, the Power Thumb and the Exoskeleton, are not being created to replace workers, but are another way to make our jobs easier and assist the human element rather than try to replace it.

A lot of jobs, particularly in the manufacturing sector, require repetitive hand and thumb movements. If the same movement is performed consistently throughout the day, it can eventually cause inflammation, carpal tunnel syndrome, tendonitis, joint pain and deformity in the wrist, fingers and thumb. That is where the Robo-Glove and the Power Thumb can step in to aid workers.

The Robo-Glove, developed by NASA and General Motors, is “a wearable human grasp assist device, to help reduce the grasping force needed by an individual to operate tools for an extended time or when performing tasks having repetitive motion.” The assisted grip could also really help the aging workforce as older workers often lose strength over time.

RoboGlove w R2 top view-872596-edited.jpgBut tools like the Robo-Glove may even prove important as younger generations enter into the industrial workforce. In a January 2016 study from researchers at Winston-Salem State University published in the Journal of Hand Therapy, male and female hand strengths, including grip and pinch measurements, established as the “norm” in 1985, were compared with millennials’ hand strengths. The researchers collected data from 237 volunteers ages 20-34 who had to squeeze a hand dynamometer, which measures grip strength in pounds. 

Today’s men aged 20-24 averaged 101 pounds in right-handed strength and 99 pounds for the left hand. In 1985, men the same age had 121 pounds of force and 105 pounds of force, respectively. Up to a 20-pound difference is a great deal, and men today ages 25-29 had an even greater disparity from men 30 years ago, at 26 and 19 pounds respectively. Meanwhile, women aged 20-24 have lost ten pounds of grip strength since 1985.

The Power Thumb can also prove useful in the hands-on workplace, as when just the thumb requires some extra assistance, the “power thumb” can be used to provide extra strength and then protect it from becoming overstrained. An example from the auto industry shows that “when an assembly-line worker pushes a rubber plug into a hole on the car’s body, for example, the plastic “power thumb” forms a stiff splint that spreads the effort along the entire thumb and prevents hyperextension of the joints of the thumb” – hyperextension that can lead to inflammation, pain and ultimately joint instability that requires surgery.  Each “power thumb” is custom-3-D-printed for a worker’s hand and fits tightly like a second skin.AU150150_large-103617-edited.jpg

Finally, the Exoskeleton is coming along to aid the workers who often finds themselves hunched over during their workday. These devices are being piloted in auto manufacturers and research firms with several goals in mind. They can be used to counter the vertebra damage that can come from bending forward for long periods, to minimize the forces experienced with heavy lifting and to provide a “chairless chair” for those who have to stand for most of their day. One such exoskeleton utilizes an aluminum and fiber carbon frame, fastened to the hips, knees and ankles. It bends into a sitting position when the worker pushes a button, allowing them to “sit,” making physical chairs and stools unnecessary.

While these technological advances are great for the workplace and the workers, they will not come cheaply, meaning employers likely will not be able to afford mass implementation and wholesale application to the entire workforce.

Utilizing physical abilities testing to carefully select employees that really need the assistance could be a smart and financially-sound way to get the technology into the workplace at a lower cost.

The clinical expertise of an organization like ErgoScience can help employers selectively apply the technology where it is most needed and most effective through:

  • Pre-hire screening – Applicants with borderline strength on their pre-hire physical abilities test might qualify for the technology
  • Worksite Prevention Screening – Workers experiencing discomfort are assessed to determine if the technology will help. If someone has a temporary discomfort in their wrist, they can use the augmented technology until their discomfort has passed. However, having someone onsite to assess that individual means an employer would be able to make decisions on implementing technology objectively over the long term.
  • Return-to-work screening – Those who are trying to return to work after injury, but for whom strength is not adequate for the job or who are still experiencing some pain, could be evaluated to determine if the technology will help.

If the decision to utilize these advancements is made based on objective data – such as with an ErgoScience Physical Abilities Test (PAT) – employers can justify supplying the technology to those who truly have a need rather than arbitrarily allowing use based on favoritism or cronyism, which would be subjective and fraught with opportunity for discrimination.

Physical Abilities Testing ROI Whitepaper

Topics: Workplace Safety, Injury Prevention, Ergonomics, Physical Abilities Tests

Deborah Lechner

Written by Deborah Lechner

Deborah Lechner, ErgoScience President, combines an extensive research background with 25-plus years of clinical experience. Under her leadership, ErgoScience continues to use the science of work to improve workplace safety, productivity and profitability.