The exoskeleton appeared to be a promising 'RSI mouse for field staff' that we quickly incorporated into our hands-on activities following a successful pilot. However, how is it holding up in practice? What do the field staff think of it? And is the exoskeleton as valuable as it seems or is it just a flashy gimmick? Here, I will share all of our findings from professional practice.
In the testing phase, we selected a suitable exoskeleton for practical use. Some of the staff recognised its potential and said it was comfortable, although they didn't think it was necessary as they did not suffer from any physical ailments. However, staff who perform heavy manual labour considered the exoskeleton to be pleasant, supportive and beneficial.
After just ten minutes, one field staff member was convinced of the exoskeleton's ability to reduce strain and physical ailments.
One professional based in France performs such heavy manual labour that he had doubts about his future as a technician. His work required him to bend over for long periods of time, cut concrete plates with a special concrete drill, operate pneumatic drills and take soil samples with a geoprobe or sonic sampler. All of these tasks required him to lift heavy weights as well as subjecting him to vibrations and shocks. To him, the exoskeleton was almost literally a life-saver.
The initial enthusiasm is wonderful to see, but can the exoskeleton be easily applied in practice? Is it something that is nice for a couple of days but then gets left at home? To examine its true value, we set up a long-term pilot to document all of the participants' experiences and opinions.
The responses obtained during the pilot were every bit as positive as we were hoping for. The exoskeleton is relatively simple to put on provided you watch the supplier's instructional videos. This is important as if the exoskeleton is used incorrectly, it can be uncomfortable to wear and its effectiveness as a support is reduced. You can wear the exoskeleton both over and under your overalls and experience tells that it becomes very easy to put on and take off after a bit of practice. Another useful feature is that a single click on the side of the exoskeleton releases the tension, allowing you to sit comfortably in a chair without taking off the whole suit.
Over the past few months, the exoskeleton has proved itself to be an extremely valuable and practical tool. Not only is it easy to use, but it also makes manual labour easier and less physically demanding. The system ensures improved posture and reduces the burden of bending over or lifting. The exoskeleton provides support for the lower back, which makes it easier to lift heavy loads and to walk on uneven surfaces. When the user bends down, the suit bends with them.
The power of the exoskeleton is that it doesn't do everything for you, it just offers a valuable helping hand. It doesn't make you lazy, it just provides solid support.
The testing phase has resulted in more and more TAUW employees all accross Europe indicating that they would like to work with the exoskeleton in the future; they expect to use it intensively and with great pleasure. I was very happy when the worker from France sent us a message to say "My back is grateful to you!". He even went as far to say that the exoskeleton had allowed him to continue in his role into the future.
This suggests that the system's value is even greater than we had thought. The exoskeleton helps TAUW to extend the sustainable employability of field staff members. After all, many field staff members decide to take an office job as a planner or project manager due to the physical strain of heavy manual labour. Tools such as the exoskeleton therefore allow these workers to continue to work in the open air if they wish. Ultimately, every organisation wants to ensure its staff to enjoy their work and do the job that suits them best!
Despite our positive initial conclusions, the implementation process is not yet complete. In fact, we've only just begun. In the period to come, we will introduce the exoskeleton to more of our field staff by holding toolbox meetings, presenting the exoskeleton at the national field work day and making it easier for the staff to experiment with it in the field.