Opinion

Will exoskeletons be the solution to MSDs?

By John Boyle

- Last updated on GMT

John Boyle asks if exoskeletons could be the solution to musculoskeletal disorders
John Boyle asks if exoskeletons could be the solution to musculoskeletal disorders
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are a common risk throughout our industry. But these can be difficult to avoid, or engineer out, as physically demanding work can put pressure on the body, with people at risk of developing problems later in life.

When it is not possible to remove the risk and other options have been considered, we must look beyond the usual standard solutions.

That is where the exoskeleton could prove to be a suitable option. Exoskeletons can either provide support or enable a person to complete tasks that would not normally be possible. They already have a place in the military, manufacturing and medical sectors.

Reducing risk

In the food industry, the exoskeleton is a suit that workers wear to provide support by moving the pressure off those vulnerable areas, such as the back, to stronger areas like the thighs and chest, thus reducing the risk of a worker suffering from an MSD.

We are about to trial it in our organisation, following development in the Netherlands. After the trial, we will report our findings at a major industry conference – IOSH’s Food and Drink Manufacturing Health and Safety Conference – in Nottingham in October.

As this technology develops, I am sure the exoskeleton will play a huge part in managing the risks of MSDs in our industry. A huge number of working days are lost because of MSDs, at a big financial cost to companies.

Workers suffering MSDs

And then there is the impact it can have on the individuals concerned. For activities where the risk of workers suffering MSDs cannot be engineered out, the exoskeleton could be an excellent additional tool.   

Having already tried the exoskeleton, I can confirm it does provide much more comfort when performing such tasks. Our own staff didn’t want to take the unit off. So, we hope it can make manual tasks easier and healthier.

John Boyle is vice-chairman of the Institution of Occupational Safety and Health’s Food & Drink Industries Group.

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