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Exoskeletons as personal protective equipment

December 2, 2020

More than ever before, healthcare and manufacturing workers are putting in long work shifts causing fatigue, and physical and mental strain. Technology exists in the form of a wearable device that can help ease their physical strain when the worker is fatigued and can engage with the worker’s body to enhance their strength, when lifting a patient or working overhead for long periods, for example. Devices like this, called exoskeletons or exosuits, are envisioned to increase user safety and may serve as a form of personal protective equipment (PPE).

CEET Dean Donald Peterson, Ph.D. was a panel speaker on ASTMs webinar on exoskeletons as PPE.

This was the topic of the November 19 webinar hosted by ASTM International entitled, “Exoskeletons: Considerations When Deciding to Use Them as Personal Protective Equipment (PPE)”. NIU’s Dean of the College of Engineering and Engineering Technology Donald Peterson, Ph.D., participated as a panel expert in the area of exoskeleton engineering.

By definition, an exoskeleton is a wearable device that can be powered or unpowered that, unlike a robot which is autonomous, can augment a human’s strength and/or capabilities, such as in the examples of the healthcare or manufacturing worker.

ASTM is an organization that works to build consensus around standards for manufacturing and industry. It was founded in 1898 to standardize the manufacturing of steel rails for the railroad industry to ensure consistency and safety of railroad tracks.

Peterson is the chair of ASTM’s Committee F48 on Exoskeletons and Exosuits. The task of the F48 committee is to develop industry standards in the growing field of exoskeletons and exosuits to ensure that as they are manufactured they remain safe and reliable for those who use them. The webinar explored the use of exoskeletons as PPE.

“How companies define PPE and safety controls are up the to companies, but the work F48 is doing will help companies determine how they will use exoskeletons,” said Peterson. “We need to be able to provide guidance to companies in terms of how to consider these exoskeletons as PPE. We need to establish best practices to ensure the safety of workers using these exoskeletons.”

Peterson went on to comment on his vision for the future of exoskeletons. “One of the first things we will see in Industry 4.0 is technology that will be brought into the work environment and how industries might choreograph this technology with the implementation of exoskeletons,” he said. “We may see exoskeletons that have smart technology embedded in them and sensors to collect information.”

He added that certification training may be needed to use exoskeletons in the workplace because it’s common for workers to have the perception that they are safe and can do more than they are able, which puts them at greater risk for injury and accidents.

In addition to his involvement with ASTM, Peterson has been active on Capitol Hill helping legislators understand the technology and the need for standards to ensure worker safety. He also serves as a U.S. delegate on the International Standards Organization (ISOTechnical Committee on Human Exposure to Mechanical Vibration and Shock.

ASTM International’s mission is: “Committed to serving global societal needs, ASTM International positively impacts public health and safety, consumer confidence, and overall quality of life. We integrate consensus standards – developed with our international membership of volunteer technical experts – and innovative services to improve lives… Helping our world work better.” For more information on this committee, watch this short video.