Faster, higher, stronger: the development of exoskeletons for military purposes began under the Olympic motto. Exoskeletons are now also set to revolutionize day-to-day industrial production, and to relieve the burden upon employees by means of supporting structures. But what are the legitimate reasons for their actual use? And how can new technology of this kind be introduced intelligently on the production line? What opportunities does it present for companies and their personnel – and what risks?
The reason most frequently cited for the use of exoskeletons is to relieve the burden upon the worker, i.e. to reduce the stress upon individual regions of the body. A further justifiable reason for their use is to facilitate a return to working life for workers with an impaired capacity for work or with a disability. Reasons stated less frequently are economic interests of the company, such as improvements in quality (owing to lower fatigue and consequently better concentration) and output (owing to better performance). The company may also benefit economically by being able to avoid investments, often costly, in production ergonomics.
Careful consideration is essential
Exoskeletons should however be used only where their use is reasonable and ethically justifiable. Since the exoskeleton impacts upon the employee‘s integrity, and it is he or she who must also bear any potential consequent harm and side-effects, a specific need for the individual employee concerned to use an exoskeleton must exist, similar to a medical indication. The user him or herself must benefit personally from its use, not just the company. The acceptance of new technology is also promoted as a result. It therefore follows that the employee must face, owing to his or her personal characteristics (height, force that can be exerted, abilities, constraints in the employee‘s personal capacity for work, etc.), an ergonomic problem at his or her workplace for which a solution is sought. Should this ergonomic problem affect several workers at the same workplace, it is probably systemic. In accordance with the TOP principle, observance of which is a legal requirement in Germany, consideration must first be given to whether technical and organizational improvements can be made to the workplace.
This approach shows clearly under what circumstances exoskeletons are able to deliver a genuine added benefit: when employees are at risk of having to give up their particular function, which they may have performed for years; of losing their workmates; and in a worst-case scenario, of losing their job altogether because their health prevents them from doing it. Under such circumstances, exoskeletons can help to keep employees in the value creation process, and also to integrate people of constrained ability back into the work process. Sadly, manufacturers of exoskeletons have not yet developed their products sufficiently to be able to declare them suitable for individuals with health impairments.
Exoskeletons are not a substitute for ergonomics
Exoskeletons may create a false sense of security. They relieve the load upon certain parts of the body (such as the shoulder joints) and redirect forces into other structures (such as the lower vertebrae) in a way that may not be physiologically suitable. To what extent these structures tolerate the resulting increased load in the longer term has not yet been studied in any depth. Long-term tests and continual medical observation are required if harm is to be avoided. The use of exoskeletons on healthy employees should be limited as far as possible.
Exoskeletons may also be an obstacle to necessary investment in improved ergonomics. In industry, in particular, it is almost always possible to find other technical or organizational solutions. These may however also be very expensive, and the use of exoskeletons may reduce the pressure upon a company to invest in them. Exoskeletons may be valuable as a temporary bridging measure to cope with an ergonomic problem until a specific technical or organizational solution that is already foreseeable can be implemented.
The acceptance of an exoskeleton often presents an unresolved problem. Besides impairing comfort (owing to pressure, temperature, friction, etc.), exoskeletons generally have only a single or limited number of support functions. For other tasks that often occur in the work process, they may obstruct the required movement. Employees who feel that their action is constrained by the exoskeleton may be quicker to reject it.
Exoskeletons may deliver added value when they are used correctly, the employee is consulted at an early stage regarding their use, and a clear, personal indication exists. Use of an exoskeleton must be monitored by the company’s technical departments and the parties responsible for safety and health respectively. Since virtually no legal provisions exist at present governing exoskeletons, and their effects and impacts have not been studied in any depth, an ethical evaluation is also required.