Industries with a lot of manual labor have heavily invested in developing safety equipment for their employees. Goggles and hard hats may not look like much, but they're carefully designed and rigorously tested to protect as many eyes and noggins as possible. Harnesses, gloves, reflectors, and other pieces of safety gear follow the same idea: A stitch in time saves nine.
Not every bad thing that happens on a job site is a one-shot accident, though. Workers' poor bodies are sometimes punished simply by carrying out their duties. That repetitive stress can cause the workers lasting damage and reduce their performance. Aware of this, some companies are reaching for slightly more futuristic (and pretty cool) methods to protect their workers. For instance, Lowe's hardware superstore chain has experimentally outfitted four of its workers with "exosuit"-style harnesses that should greatly reduce the stress put on them during their day. They may be on to something, but what might the far-reaching consequences of such equipment be on work injury law?
The Lowe's Exosuit: Design and Purpose
Engineers across the nation have fiddled for years with mechanically augmenting conventional human abilities. The exosuit is a concept that keeps getting revisited due to the ability to use its enhancements without any dangerous implantation surgeries. You've seen the concept in science fiction: Ripley's robotic "power loader" frame in the movie Aliens and the Iron Man suit are examples of external prostheses that greatly enhance the wearer's effectiveness.
Once it's strapped on, the rig works on simple physical principles. Carbon-fiber elements running down the wearer's back and thighs flex as he bends over, absorbing the energy expended. As he returns to a standing position, the rods straighten and discharge the stored energy, reducing strain on the user. Think of how a bow stores energy when you draw it, then converts that energy into forward motion when the string is released. Standing up is like releasing the drawn bow, and your body is brought upright by the straightening rods (though without propelling you toward the ceiling).
Of course, some industry tools already exist to help lift and transport heavier inventory--the dolly, pallet jack, and forklift have been chugging along nicely in warehouses and big-box stockrooms for decades. Still, many items have to be lifted to put them onto those devices in the first place, so it's great to see a company investing in worker safety by looking into strain-related injury prevention (and coincidentally making their workers look like cyborgs).
If It's So Great, Why Only Use Four Suits?
There's a few answers to that. For one, the technology isn't perfected; the Lowe's exosuits are only a trial, and they're carefully monitoring the workers' experiences with them. Also different industries need different things from the suits, so no standards really exist yet for how they should be built and what they have to do. Finally, nobody's mandating that Lowe's use the suits at all, so the company is completely in charge of how much it feels like doing in the name of research.
Here's the thing that probably makes the most sense, though: cost. Mechanical exosuits, awesome as they look, are still too expensive for widespread use. The simplest rigs I could find were around $2,000 apiece, but advanced units loaded with sensors and actuated moving parts can cost tens of thousands of dollars. Even DARPA, a de facto money printer for tech with military applications, is still tiptoeing forward with exosuits. Purely mechanical rigs with no electronics, about as cheap as they get, are still fairly pricey per unit. Lowe's could afford to outfit the store's whole workforce, but why pay out the nose for suits that might not work out and may quickly become obsolete?
Why Even Use Them At All, Then?
Optics! That's the idea of taking certain actions largely because of how they'll be perceived. While the term is generally flung about in politics, shaping public opinion is also very important to running a profitable business. By trying out exosuit technology, Lowe's gets a number of brownie points with consumers and stockholders:
- Altruism. By investing in new safety gear, the store displays concern for the well-being of its employees.
- Novelty. Retail stores haven't made much use of exosuits, so Lowe's gets credit for showing customers something new.
- Innovation. If this idea pans out, the hardware chain will be seen as visionary. If not, they sunk only a modest investment into research, and the data they obtained could still be useful.
None of these are bad things--in fact, they're all good for a national retail outfit that wants to be number one in its field. However, there are some pragmatic concerns that may have gone into it as well, and we should probably peek at them too. Keep in mind that I'm being overly cynical by seeing these, which is of course no great stretch for me:
- Cost/Benefit. Businesses don't sink money into something unless they expect a net gain. Safer workers means fewer injuries, fewer missed shifts, and less likelihood of lawsuits or Workers Comp claims.
- Profitability. Consumer approval nudges stock prices up. It edges out competition. Build a loyal base and you can push prices upward. It'd be irresponsible not to investigate ways to raise the bottom line.
- Competitive Edge. If the exosuits work, Lowe's is out front of anyone else who decides to jump on the bandwagon. It'd be great to see cyborg salespeople tromping up and down the aisles in Home Depot and Walmart too, but they'll be late to the party. Lowe's stockers will already be retrieving 2x4's with remotely-piloted drones that direct people to Aisle 5 in suave British accents.
Widespread Adoption Could Change How the Law Works.
If a good reproducible model of exosuit can be created--not too costly, built to last--there's no reason it couldn't see widespread use in settings where workers could use a little extra "oomph." I'm definitely getting ahead of myself there, of course; given the current pace of the technology, it'll be decades before such a mass-produced and affordable exosuit might be available. Still, there's no reason not to look at the horizon occasionally.
Ideally, workplace injuries could be drastically reduced in number and scope with such measures. If the suit really bears the brunt of repeated squatting, lifting, and carrying, it would be a huge relief to workers' strained bodies. Fewer worker injuries means fewer claims for Workers' Compensation, which means tremendous savings for Lowe's. Workers' Comp isn't the most generous program, but in most states it is guaranteed income for an employee put out of commission by a work injury. By participating, Lowe's is required to pay an injured worker part of their regular salary despite not getting equivalent value in the form of labor. However, doing so also prevents the employee from suing if injured. The program's harshest critics say it invites scams by opportunistic employees. I hope they never get hurt badly enough to need it, lest they choke on the humble pie.
Texas, unique in the U.S., allows employers not to participate in the Workers' Compensation program. If companies choose not to enroll in it, workers are not guaranteed compensation in the event of injury, but they also gain the option to sue their employer. If they can prove that the company's negligence caused their injuries, they can still be compensated to help them get their lives back on track. Medical bills and lost wages can be devastating to someone hurt on the job.
So why bring up Texas' unusual setup in relation to Lowe's and exosuits? It's important to remember that improved safety equipment could drastically reduce the number of Workers' Compensation claims. Lowe's is a national chain and probably wouldn't opt out of Workers' Comp, but smaller hardware chains or other "heavy stuff" stores might spy a way to reduce overhead. By not subscribing to Workers' Comp on the assumption that the exosuits are sophisticated enough to protect workers, those businesses could leave employees high and dry in the event of an accident. Just because workers aren't throwing out their backs anymore doesn't mean that every injury can be avoided.
Fortunately, Texas work injury law is already designed to handle this kind of thing. The common law provides recourse for injured workers whose employers chose not to participate in Workers' Comp. No amount of cool robot gear is better than retaining mobility, health, and financial security.