Construction’s New Tool to Reduce Risk for Back Injuries

Read Time: 8 minutes

Meet the new exosuit that provides the back support that construction workers need and the versatility they require. Then watch video of it in action.

By Matt Marino, HeroWear Director of Ergonomics & Human Factors

The amount of time construction workers spend bending and squatting to get their work done is a big reason why they experience high rates of back pain. Hours spent bending to make sure work is done properly add up. And that makes for more than just a sore back at the end of the day. As a certified professional ergonomist, physical therapist, and certified workers compensation healthcare provider, I can attest to the physical and financial costs—both for the construction workers and their employers. In the clinic, I’ve seen too many construction workers for treatment of daily chronic low back pain. But now, there’s a tool that can help reduce the risk for back injuries in this hardworking industry and, hopefully, keep them out of the PT clinic in the first place.

Continuing our look at 5 Industries Ready to Reduce Back Pain, today we show how exoskeleton technology has achieved the extreme versatility needed for adoption in the construction industry. And then we share videos of our exo in action.

Facing the Realities of Construction Work

The leading causes of preventable injuries in the construction industry are overexertion from lifting and lowering objects, as well as awkward postures like bending (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2015). I’ve spoken with construction workers in their twenties who already have daily back pain and problems that negatively impact their quality of life. Listening to their stories fuels my desire to do something about the global pandemic that is back pain. While there really isn’t an industry immune from this risk, construction’s statistics are particularly prominent. In the face of that reality, what’s to be done?

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) highlighted the potential for exoskeletons in the construction industry (Zingman et al., 2017). Further industry perspectives and research gaps were published in a recent study (Kim et al., 2019). The perceived benefits are clear: potential to reduce injuries, retain workers, and boost productivity. But the potential barriers are equally familiar, with concerns over exoskeleton versatility, reliability, comfort, and cost.

Summary of categories and subcategories regarding exoskeleton adoption and use in construction. Note that filled shapes are higher-level categories in the hierarchy, and the same color indicates the same hierarchical level (Kim et al., 2019).

Designing a Truly Versatile Exo

Five years ago, HeroWear began listening to worker feedback and concerns from multiple industries about exoskeletons. This candid feedback made us keenly aware of potential use and adoption barriers. Each and every one of the challenges we heard from workers made it onto our list as we designed our exosuit. The valuable insights of workers led to the Apex: an agile, lightweight exosuit with incredible range of motion that can we worn with other PPE. It’s worn like a backpack, weighs only 3.4 lbs., and takes over 50 lbs. of strain off the back—without motors or batteries. It’s comfortable and designed to fit both men and women.

Although the Apex was specifically designed for logistics and warehouse workers, it’s versatility, reliability, effectiveness, and comfort also meet key criteria for construction work. We’ve found that construction workers enjoy using it on the job for a wide array of work tasks.

Witnessing the Reaction from Workers

Knowing this, HeroWear recently partnered with a construction company building an ADA-accessible home for my family. The workers wearing the Apex while constructing our home are providing independence for my son and improving our family's quality of life. HeroWear and I are proud to help the workers who's hard work will change our lives for years to come.

From the start, when the workers put on the Apex exosuit for the first time, their reaction was memorable. Their faces lit up. They could feel and understand the benefit immediately. Then they went to work.

Wearing the Apex, the construction workers operated excavators and steamrollers, making unrestricted, quick transitions in and out of these machines whenever they needed. They performed repairs on the equipment, kneeling, bending, and using a combination of brute force, crowbars, sledgehammers, and hand tools to get an excavator track back on its drive motor and for adjusting its track tensioner. They lifted boxes and carried them across the site. They hiked over large mounds of gravel, walking on loose, uneven terrain with ease. They shoveled dirt and gravel. They operated chainsaws and hauled heavy tree limbs. They lifted and carried bags of concrete. They removed and installed decking. They lifted, carried, and cut lumber to build and install the subfloor and framing. They moved in crawlspaces, and installed plumbing and irrigation. They reviewed plans, took measurements, and performed inspections. The Apex was also used for installing trusses and for the roofing work, while wearing fall protection harnesses.

Most importantly, the construction workers told me how they could now perform these tasks without the fatigue and back issues that they usually experienced. These men and women are very happy with the assistance it provides, its ability to support a variety of tasks without hindrance, and most importantly, how it makes their backs feel. Which is music to my ears.

This is project is exciting and ongoing, with new applications being discovered each week as HeroWear actively works with and listens to construction workers to understand how we can assist with other physically demanding tasks. To further support other parts of the body. To customize new exo technologies to support specific worker needs. But from the outset, one thing is clear: The HeroWear Apex is versatile enough, strong enough, and ready enough to take strain off of construction workers’ backs.

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

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Please contact us at exosphere@herowearexo.com to share comments and feedback, ask questions, or suggest topics to cover in future posts.
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