Researchers at the University of Wisconsin are one step closer to finding a cure for carpal tunnel syndrome through the use of video technology to record and analyze workers’ upper body movements.

Robert Gadwin, a professor in biomedical engineering and industrial and systems engineering, who also led the study, said the idea of the research is to combine human perception with the computer to measure things that are not easy to measure using normal laboratory methods. He said a researcher instructs the program where the hands are in the video screen and then the computer watches the hands to calculate how repetitive the task is the person is doing.

He said this is called the “Hand Activity Level.” HAL then compares that measurement and the loads in the hands with exposure guidelines to determine if the job is hazardous.

Gadwin said he recreates the repetitive movements in his lab using student volunteers who copy the upper body movements many workers make while working at a computer or in a factory.

He said videos made in factories are usually not ideal because they often have poor lighting and a poor view of the workers’ hands. There is also a lot of interference because workplaces, especially factories, are very active places.

Gadwin said his team eventually hopes to figure out the likelihood of a worker getting carpal tunnel syndrome.

“These guidelines are not perfect, but they are the best we have today,” Gadwin said. “We hope to someday have better guidelines using our new system. We are not there yet, but this research tells us that it may be possible.”

Yu Hen Hu, electrical and computer engineering and computer sciences professor, served as the faculty expert in the research project. He said he and the research team have been working on the project for around two and a half years, and plan to spend a couple more years on it.  

He said their research works to establish what kind of work or activity level is considered safe, or prone to certain types of injuries, like carpal tunnel syndromes.

The video technology is a step up from previous methods of recording movement, which involved attaching sensors to workers, Hu said. He said this was an invasive research method and many workers did not move naturally while attached to the sensors, which made the research less accurate.

Hu said they also plan on looking into the Xbox Kinect because the game monitors the player’s movements. He said they can use the Xbox Kinect to monitor the hand movements of factory workers and conduct lab experiments. He said they will see if it is promising and, if it is, they will look into the next step, which is getting real data from factories.

“We like to have some fun in research work,” Hu said.

Gadwin said they hope the research will ultimately lead to a tool that companies can use all over the world to help prevent injuries in the workplace. He said getting to that point will take more research and analyzing videos was just a start.

He said there are thousands of more videos of workers that are available to be analyzed. Gadwin said they hope to eventually make their system capable of evaluating the risk of other types of injuries and make the system more reliable.

“We are just getting started,” Gadwin said.