Robotics assist in fighting MSDs

Manufacturing often requires employees to do repetitive work for a long period of time, which can result in injury. Fortunately, there are numerous technological innovations to help prevent these injuries

Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) can be caused by a variety of factors and often occur when employees are exposed to overexertion or repetitive motion. According to the American Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, around 41 out of every 10 000 workers suffer from MSDs in the manufacturing sector.

It states: “Experience has shown that reducing MSDs can improve productivity, reduce workmen’s compensation and healthcare costs.”

The American Occupation Safety and Health Administration estimates that one-third of all lost workdays in the United States (US) were due to MSDs. These disorders cost the US economy an estimated US$ 20 billion (R293 billion) in direct costs and US$ 100 billion (R1,46 trillion) in indirect costs each year.

To assist in preventing MSDs, employers need to address the causes, either by adjusting the work environment or by providing equipment that can ease the strain on muscles.

In the manufacturing industry, common causes might include lifting or moving heavy equipment or containers, repetitive or awkward movements (for example screwing in bolts), and overhead work that requires lifting arms for extended periods of time, which can cause muscle fatigue.

Employees can be provided with training to ensure they correctly interact with the equipment and goods. For example, to safely lift heavy equipment or a container from the floor, employees should squat down by bending their knees and lift by straightening their knees. They should never lift from their back by bending forward.

While the training will provide employees with valuable information on working safely, there is the risk of them failing to follow guidelines as they grow tired. Employers can support employees by adapting the workplace to minimise fatigue. For example, heavy equipment or containers can be stored at waist level to reduce the need for squatting to lift objects.

There are also personal protective equipment solutions to assist. These include wearable robotics or exoskeleton technologies. There are six main categories: tool-holding exoskeletons; so-called chairless chairs; back support; powered gloves; full-body powered suits; and supernumerary robotics.

While all the innovations are aimed at preventing muscle strain and fatigue, some are more geared to preventing MSDs, for example, the chairless chair. These lightweight devices are attached to the individual’s waist and thighs. When bending the knees as if seated, the device locks up to provide support. This is especially useful for employees who are in the same position for long periods of time.

An alternative to this costly technology is anti-fatigue matting, which is specifically designed to reduce the fatigue caused by standing and related MSDs. Many of these matting solutions also provide anti-slip technologies geared to specific materials from water to oils.

The back-support exoskeletons assist employees in maintaining the correct posture when bending down to lift an object.

Powered gloves can help workers gain a stronger grip on tools. Jaguar Land Rover designed a 3D printed glove to reduce muscle fatigue among employees on the production line, including those who fit clips or fasteners onto the chassis. The lattice-style glove is structured enough to provide support without compromising on flexibility or comfort.

The next generation glove will include a foam pad that absorbs impact when placed under pressure. This will make the glove suitable for those who fit parts, such as door casings, using the palms of their hands.

In the short term, the gloves will support workers across Jaguar Land Rover facilities, helping to protect them against MSDs. In the long term, they will form part of a wider plan to deploy a range of technologies aimed at assisting people with muscle weaknesses, or those who suffer from physical or neurological disorders.

According to the Health and Safety Executive in the United Kingdom, employers can look for the following as warning signs that employees might be suffering from MSDs:

• Back or limb injuries in the workplace;

• Employees suffering aches and pains;

• Workers frequently complaining or taking rests;

• Poor quality or low product output;

• High rate of materials wasted;

• Workers wearing bandages or guards to work; and

• Employees implementing their own unique solutions (such as placing seating near their work stations).

It is important to note that when physical signs of MSDs are present, including pain, it is too late in that the damage has already been inflicted. Thereafter, the employer can simply take steps to help ease the strain on the employee. For that reason, it is important to address MSDs long before employees start experiencing discomfort.

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