Since mid-May, a Ford employee, Jason Overstreet, has used a spring-powered vest to prevent fatigue and repetitive motion injuries. | Photo by Boris Ladwig

Louisville native Jason Overstreet has worked for Ford Motor Co. for about 20 years, but for the last roughly 20 weeks, he’s gone occasionally bionic.

A $6,000 vest that he wears much like a backpack or football equipment provides him with mechanical assistance when he lifts his hands above his shoulders, which he does frequently when he installs heat shields on the undercarriage of Ford Escape frames.

The device, made by Richmond, Calif.-based Ekso Bionics, reduces muscle fatigue and the risk of repetitive motion injuries. Ford has deployed the vests at 15 plants, including the Louisville Assembly Plant.

Ekso told Insider via email that one of the aspects that sets the vest apart is that it’s completely mechanical.

“There’s no cord, no battery, no electricity; it’s powered by springs,” the company said. “They kick in gradually once the wearer raises their arms to about chest-height and beyond.”

The vest weighs about 10 pounds and consists of a frame that workers carry on their backs, with arms extending to the side just below the shoulder blades. The frame connects to a waist belt and is fastened with straps over the shoulders and around the upper arms. The vest, which comes with an optional neck brace, provides lift assistance of between five and 15 pounds per arm.

Overstreet spends most of his day on his feet, frequently lifting his hands above his shoulders. At his workstation, a conveyor recently propelled Escape SUV frames slowly over his head as he grabbed fasteners and a heat shield from nearby racks, then placed the shield in its designated spot on the undercarriage and used the pneumatic gun in his right hand to tighten the fasteners, seven per shield.

The heat shield is a critical piece of the assembly, as it protects the rest of the car from the engine’s heat.

Overstreet has worked on the line since 2011. Holding his hands above his shoulders for much of the day gets fatiguing, he said, especially if he has to work five or more days in a row. He currently works four 10-hour shifts and switches to a different task for part of the day to give his shoulders a rest.

His job also requires him to lean back a lot to look up, which puts stress on his neck and shoulders, too, he says. Since mid-May, he has worn the vest about four hours per shift.

“It definitely helps relieve some of that stress,” Overstreet said.

In a news release, Ford compared some of the work of its employees to lifting a watermelon over one’s head up to 4,600 times per day.

The vest is easy to put on, wear and take off, Overstreet said. Employees got training on just one day to understand the the device’s mechanics, use and how to alter the level of assistance it provides. Overstreet usually has it on the lowest setting. At full power, he said, the vest provides so much assistance that he has to work hard to get his arm lowered from an overhead position.

Unfortunately, he joked, it doesn’t help him with his jump shot.

Photo by Boris Ladwig

Overstreet lives in Louisville with his wife, Angela. The couple have seven kids, including a three-month-old and six ranging in ages from 16 to 23.

Ford said that the vest exemplifies the company’s use of advanced technology to reduce danger to employees and improve productivity. The automaker said that since 2005, incidents that have resulted in lost time have fallen 75 percent.

The company piloted the vest in two Michigan plants before rolling it out globally.

Ekso says on its website that the vests allow workers to “stay healthier and experience increased stamina” enabling companies to gain productivity in factories and on construction sites.

Ekso CEO Jack Peurach said in the news release that the company wants to “augment human capability with wearable technology and robotics that help people rethink current physical limitations.”

Ekso’s other work device, the EksoZeroG, helps workers hold heavy power tools. And Ekso’s health division makes a $160,000 robotic exoskeleton that allows people with spinal cord or brain injuries to walk again. The company says it also helps with projects “intended to benefit U.S. defense capabilities.”

UPDATED: This article was updated with comments from Ekso Bionics and to remove incorrect information about how the vest is powered.

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Boris Ladwig
Boris Ladwig is a reporter with more than 20 years of experience and has won awards from multiple journalism organizations in Indiana and Kentucky for feature series, news, First Amendment/community affairs, nondeadline news, criminal justice, business and investigative reporting. As part of The (Columbus, Indiana) Republic’s staff, he also won the Kent Cooper award, the top honor given by the Associated Press Managing Editors for the best overall news writing in the state. A graduate of Indiana State University, he is a soccer aficionado (Borussia Dortmund and 1. FC Köln), singer and travel enthusiast who has visited countries on five continents. He speaks fluent German, rudimentary French and bits of Spanish, Italian, Khmer and Mandarin.