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Evaluating Exoskeletons for Farm Use

Farming often involves a lot of lifting and bending, which can be tough on the back.  Photo credit: pexels.com 

Having food in stomach is essential in our daily life, and the life of farmers who grow food for us is a part of this value chain. Most of us have heard that farmers do “back-breaking” work. Bending over to be closer to the ground, requires farmers to support their own body weight and, sometimes, other weight like livestock, feed, produce, or fertilizer. This type of task is typical in agriculture as farmers stoop to work and carry heavy loads every day, and this can lead to injuring their backs over time.


Over the past few years, exoskeleton devices are being used more and more in workplaces to reduce risk of injury. An exoskeleton is a wearable device designed to support the body.  Some are electrically powered, complex suits like “iron-man” that may give you ‘super powers’ like additional strength and work ability. Some are more simple structures without electrical supply that use torsional springs, that store the energy of your body weight when you bend down and then help push your body back to standing, along with any additional weights you might be holding. Exoskeletons are being used successfully in factories and warehouses; maybe farmers can benefit from them, too.


The Canadian Centre for Health and Safety in Agriculture’s Ergonomics Laboratory is conducting a research project to find out if an exoskeleton with torsional springs can take a load off the farmers. We visited farmers on several different types of farms in Central Canada: grain, oilseeds, pulses, poultry, and mixed farms.  The farmers did their farm tasks using the exoskeleton, and we put sensors on them to measure heart rate, muscle load at their back, and the posture of their back and legs. Then we made a comparison between when they used the device and when they did not use it. Since we knew the farmers were likely to have insight and feedback based on their knowledge of the industry, we also interviewed them about their experience with the exoskeleton, especially the challenges they had with it and when/where they think it would be effective. 


We are still summarizing what we have learned, and we look forward to sharing this information with stakeholders, including the farmers themselves, policy makers, and exoskeleton designers. We hope that this study will contribute to the health, productivity, and sustainability of the farming workforce. 

Dr. Ornwipa Thamsuwan, with a wearable exoskeleton in the University of Saskatchewan Ergonomics Lab.

Photo credit: Chris Morin

To learn more about this study, check out the University of Saskatchewan Ergonomics Lab website: 

< https://research-groups.usask.ca/ergolab/our-research/exoskeleton.php >


Additional information on workplace use of exoskeletons can be found on the Washington State Department of Labor website: 

< https://www.lni.wa.gov/Safety/GrantsPartnerships/Committees/Exoskeleton/default.asp >