Exoskeletons for Extra Safety

by Balfour Beatty

On our Harkers Island Bridge Replacement project in Harkers Island, North Carolina, Balfour Beatty is testing new exoskeleton technology that has exciting potential to reduce injuries and boost efficiency for overhead work.

The Hilti EXO-01 passive assistance exoskeleton uses a steel frame, comfortable body straps and high-tension rubber cables to keep the user’s arms raised overhead under tension, thus requiring less effort to lower the arms. Ultimately, the technology’s goal is to minimize fatigue and prevent injuries by supporting the shoulder joint.

The Harkers Island team is currently testing and evaluating the applications of one EXO-01 exoskeleton device. Their dedication to exploring new tools and technologies that help our teammates and trade partners work more safely is a powerful example of Balfour Beatty’s people-first Zero Harm commitment. 

Overhead Work

The Harkers Island Bridge project encompasses replacement of an older bridge with an entirely new structure. New bridges are often designed with stay-in-place concrete forms, but the Harkers Island bridge was designed with removable soffit formwork due to the unique Fiberglass Reinforcement Design and the harsh environment which would cause steel SIPs to be prone to corrosion. 

Removal of the existing forms is performed on raised work platforms staffed by two workers and a third operating the platform. The process of lowering 70-pound sheets of plywood over the course of an entire workday can be an exhausting task, and one that renders workers prone to potential injury. 

“It was going to be a challenging job, no matter our approach,” says Project Manager Pete Distefano. “Even after the forms are removed, every square inch of the concrete still requires concrete finish work that typically includes the use of hand and power tools used overhead.”

Pete was first introduced to the Hilti EXO-01 device at a Carolinas Associated General Contractors (CAGC) conference in 2021 and immediately recognized the device’s potential. 

“The exoskeletons are incredibly user-friendly and help reduce any overhead work fatigue” says Pete, noting that while they keep arms raised under tension, they do not impede normal range of motion.

Exploring the Future of Assistance Devices

Safety standards in the construction industry are constantly improving, and it’s critical that the industry continue to collectively pursue new and improved ways to reduce risk. 

“What’s most important to us, at all times, is the safety of our people,” says Southeast Environmental Health and Safety Manager Eric Yates. “Improved production is often a fortunate byproduct, but technology is always advancing, and new safety measures are always worth a closer look.”

Devices like the exoskeleton can also help accommodate workers with different levels of physical ability, extending their possible use across different project types. Workers with preexisting medical conditions or other limitations may benefit significantly from the exoskeleton device.

The applications of exoskeletons have primarily been tested in factory and warehouse settings, but Eric says the technology is easily fit for construction work and could become a future industry mainstay.

“At Balfour Beatty, we’re not afraid to test new strategies, programs and equipment that may help our teammates and partners perform their jobs more safely and effectively—and even save lives.  Trying new things, like this device, keeps safety interesting which ultimately strengthens our attitude towards safety and our safety culture” praises Eric. “This spirit of continuous improvement and forward thinking is deeply woven into the fabric of our Zero Harm culture, and our Harkers Island team is proud to play a role in leading the future of jobsite safety.”