Feeding the world puts a huge strain on every farmer’s back. But a new, lightweight exosuit is ready to help take on that burden.

By Matt Marino, HeroWear Director of Ergonomics & Human Factors

Farmers have a long history with back pain, and the reason is clear: Agricultural work is highly physical in nature. Farmers lift, throw, and stack heavy bales of hay. They remove dead hogs, often weighing hundreds of pounds, from confined feeding operations. And farmers perform countless bending and squatting tasks such as planting, picking, feeding animals, and inspecting crops. It’s not surprising that a study found that 100 percent of agricultural workers reported experiencing back pain and injury (Upasani et al., 2019).

As one of our 5 Industries Ready to Reduce Back Pain, today we look at agricultural work, the prevalence of back issues, and how back-assist exoskeleton technology is meeting key criteria for adoption.

Agricultural work hits farmers square in the back.

Agriculture faces a sobering statistic: Farmers have double the risk for back pain compared to the rest of the working population (Fethke et al., 2015). Research has also found that the low back is their most common complaint (Fathallah, 2010). Another recent study found that 100 percent of farmers reported that lifting and bending were pain-inducing movements (Upasani et al., 2019). In this same study, every farmer affirmed they would use a back-assist exoskeleton, with a high percentage reporting they would use it for common lifting, bending, and squatting tasks—like loading feed and hay, removing dead hogs, and inspecting crops.

Candidate movements for exoskeleton use (left), ranked according to percentage of respondents listing each movement. Examples of specific tasks mentioned by the respondents are shown on the right (Upasani et al., 2019). 

Adopting back-assist exos is now a true option.

Exoskeleton adoption is a new concept for agriculture. And initial skepticism about new technology can be expected. The same farmers who reported they would use exoskeletons in the study above also identified some adoption barriers and concerns: affordability, usability, compatibility with equipment, compatibility with the environment of use, safety and health risks. When I read this list, I immediately realized that these barriers were not unique to agricultural workers. These are the same things I have been hearing workers say about exoskeletons across a variety of industries.

When we designed the Apex exosuit at HeroWear, all of these potential barriers and concerns became criteria we used for testing our product. And before we brought the Apex to the market, we made sure that our exosuit answered user concerns. The Apex is lightweight (3.4 lbs.), agile, and comfortable; it can take over 50 lbs. of strain off the back; it’s strong, versatile, and reliable for all-day use; it offers a custom fit for male and female workers; and it’s an affordable option to reduce risk for workers. We want farmers and workers in all industries to know that we have been listening. Which is why we designed the HeroWear Apex for daily real-world use.

And reliable, all-day use is the new standard.

The Apex exosuit is ready to be put to work by farmers. It has already been very well received by construction workers who easily integrated the Apex into the diverse physical tasks of their work (see video). Anecdotally, I often put it to work on a much smaller scale than farming in my own yard. I use it mainly for gardening and yardwork. It’s been great for taking the strain off my back while weeding, planting, lifting bags of seed, topsoil, mulch and fertilizer. The Apex also worked well for splitting and stacking firewood, and working with a chainsaw.

It doesn’t get in the way. You can turn on the device when you need back support and turn it off when you don’t. And the Apex is comfortable, versatile, and reliable enough to wear for hours straight. Because that’s what agricultural work demands.

The statistics say that back pain is a problem for every agricultural worker. And like farmers, we’re eager to see this change. That’s why HeroWear Apex is ready for all-day use by agricultural workers to support and assist them when they need it most, without inconveniencing them—so feeding the world will no longer fall square on their backs.

This article is the fourth of five in our 5 Industries Ready to Reduce Back Pain series. Read all five to see how the logistics, manufacturing, construction, and healthcare sectors can benefit from new, work-ready exoskeleton technology.


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