Is the exoskeleton a welcome addition to the personal protective equipment currently used by field workers? TAUW has put it through its paces.
Ever since I was a student, I have often suffered from RSI complaints in my wrist when using a traditional computer mouse. I was often unable to even hold a pen and would feel sharp pains right up to my neck. When this happened, I would be severely restricted in my possibilities for 6 to 8 weeks. Rest, physical therapy and Powerball exercises were the only way to recover.
But I would still regularly encounter these complaints. Often causing a lot of inconvenience because I was very busy. And I tried all kinds of solutions. For instance, I tried writing exams with my left hand, which was not appreciated by my professors because it was barely legible. And I would often ask a secretary to transcribe my dictaphone recordings, which was like doing the work twice. I also tried using speech-recognition software on my laptop, but this technology has only really improved over the past few years, and caused me great frustration at the time because I had to correct quite a lot by hand (although my dialect might have played a role!). However, I would only use these options once the complaints had materialised, until an occupational hygienist advised me to use a different mouse: the ergonomic mouse...
The purpose of tools is to make our work easier and healthier. That is why more and more companies in the construction industry are experimenting with exoskeletons: a wearable skeleton that you personally operate while performing physically demanding activities. It is like a Terminator suit that assists you when bending down or lifting very heavy loads. It is increasingly being used by plasterers, although there are also plenty of examples in the logistical industry.
This inspired me to research whether such an exoskeleton would also be useful for our field workers. Come rain or shine, they are always working hard; lifting heavy bags of gravel, performing drilling activities and installing monitoring wells. And not to mention arduous tasks involving demolition work or frequent stooping, like when digging asbestos holes.
In order to thoroughly test the exoskeleton, we instructed a ‘test panel’ to test it for a month and asked them whether the technology supported them during heavy physical activities and whether they would actually use it. The response was unanimously positive. One of the tested exoskeleton suits received very positive reviews because it can be put on within minutes, immediately ensures a proper posture and provides support where necessary. This suit can also be powered down, which improves freedom of movement. This can be very use when you want to have lunch, for example.
For people who suffer from back pain, this could be a great addition to their range of personal protective equipment. That said, I also had a few critical questions. For example, I wondered whether such a system would make your body become ‘lazy’. Studies have shown, however, that the offered support actually also forces muscles to do their share, so they do not become weaker.
Following the very positive results of this pilot, we’re currently examining how we can use this technology more often for our field workers. Not to so it becomes mandatory, but so people can use it if they need extra support. The first few field officers have already shown an interest in this further implementation.
If I reflect on this experience with my ergonomic mouse in mind, I know one thing for certain: I really cannot manage without it now! Working with a ‘normal’ mouse for just an hour already feels unpleasant. So I expect field workers that already suffers from certain health complaints to be very happy with this development. They will not have to wear such an exoskeleton for every task, but can do so when it offers them extra benefits.
This is our way of contributing to the sustainable deployment of our workers because, whether we’re talking about an ergonomic mouse or an exoskeleton, no one enjoys sitting at home for medical reasons. And of course, I understand the younger and more vital field worker. Although they might think: “Surely I do not need that...”, hopefully they too will be convinced that prevention is better than cure. To be honest, the exoskeleton does not really look that much like a Terminator suit. The first time I saw it, I had to look closely to even spot it.
TAUW is constantly looking for smart technological solutions that offer added value in our work and the work of our clients. Therefore, besides cleverly and innovatively using existing tools, we also develop new digital products that add value to our services. You can see some great examples on our Digital Transformation page by clicking the button below.