While considerable exoskeleton research has been focused on manufacturing industry safety, a University of Saskatchewan professor is exploring its potential use in a different area: agriculture.

Dr. Catherine Trask, whose specialties include ergonomics, musculoskeletal injury surveillance, exposure assessment and sampling strategies, and evaluation of workplace interventions, is focusing her attention on the prevention of a type of injury that occurs frequently among farmers: back injuries. Trask trained as an Occupational Hygienist with a focus in Ergonomics at the University of British Columbia.

A exoskeleton is an external supportive structure – in this context, a fabricated one – that supports and protects person. It can also assist the wearer in performing tasks.

Workers in agricultural operations for both crop and animal production typically use repetitive motions in awkward positions and which can cause musculoskeletal injuries. Farmers must often perform frequent or heavy lifting, pushing, pulling, or carrying of heavy objects; and prolonged awkward postures. Vibration and cold may intensify these conditions.

Trask is testing exoskeletons equipped with sensors that monitor muscle activity on volunteer farmers in Saskatchewan as they go about their work-related tasks. The devices that will be featured in the research are already in use in industries such as warehousing and auto manufacturing.

Trask and her associates will also take a hard look at potential barriers to the use of exoskeletons in farming, including perceptions and beliefs.