They look futuristic, like in an action movie: Exoskeletons are lifting aids worn on the body that support the musculoskeletal system when moving loads. The Bergader cheese dairy in Upper Bavaria has been providing its employees with exoskeletons since December 2021. The response has been extremely positive.
In a cheese dairy, work is physically hard. During the actual cheese production and later
in packaging. Many hundreds of times per shift, pallets or hordes of cheese have to be filled, lifted and carried there, mostly by hand. "Wherever we can't automate processes or make them easier with technical lifting aids, lifting and carrying is still manual work and correspondingly strenuous," explains plant manager Heinrich Wolfertstetter. "And that's where exoskeletons really are a great relief," continues Simon Wildner. He is responsible for the "Cheese Factory 1" area and
is considered the "exo-man" of the first hour at Bergader. As a supervisor, he wanted to know exactly how these lifting aids, which look a bit like a cross between a climbing harness and a back protector, worked and tested the first models himself. "It almost makes you feel like Ironman's little brother," he says with a smile. "Our owner and CEO Felix Kress came up with the idea of trying exoskeletons in 2021, and we looked at different models from different manufacturers and tested them for a while in a pilot group. The feedback from the employees was very
good. In the meantime, a total of eleven of these body-own lifting aids are in use at our company: in the cheese dairy and in packaging. The wearers are more than satisfied," says Sabine Ortbauer, health manager at Bergader. One of them is Manuel Kroiß, who has been working in packaging at Bergader for ten years and was hooked on his personal lifting aid right from the start. "I think this thing is great," he says. "I used to be totally knackered in the evening and often had back pain. That's gotten a lot better since I started wearing my exoskeleton." And he does it consistently, usually for eight hours throughout the shift. "Manuel also goes to the cafeteria with it," smiles Sabine Ortbauer. The passive exoskeletons used can be unbuckled very quickly in the chest area, one click and they sit so loosely that you can move around comfortably with them and also sit down.
Making the right choice
Basically, there are two types of exoskeletons: passive and active. In the passive variants, for example, spring or rubber systems store the body's own forces and return them during the lifting process. They have an assisting effect, for example, during activities in ergonomically unfavorable postures - which at Bergader primarily include palletizing or moving the pieces of cheese during ripening. Active exoskeletons, on the other hand, function via force-generating components such as electric motors or pneumatic drives. "Whether and which exoskeleton is suitable for a workplace always depends on the general conditions there. Active exoskeletons were not recommended in the Bergader case because of the humidity, hygiene requirements and workplace conditions. In addition, they are much heavier and by one
many times more expensive than passive models," explains Stephan Huis, ergonomics expert at the BGN. He welcomes the use of these body-mounted lifting aids at Bergader, but warns in general not to regard them as a panacea. "In occupational safety, the TOP principle must always apply. Exoskeletons are personal aids and are suitable as a supplementary measure, especially in workplaces where all technical and organizational options have been exhausted. Likewise, they can be used as a temporary solution until a technical solution is possible at the affected workplace, and also ensure improved posture at work," says Stephan Huis. All in all, it is very important to him to thoroughly prepare the use of exoskeletons in companies. "The support provided by exoskeletons is limited to certain movements and postures. If you don't have a close eye on all activities, they can even be counterproductive in the worst case." For the ergonomics expert, exoskeletons therefore naturally belong in the risk assessment of the respective workplace. In addition, their effectiveness must be checked again and again, even in the long term.
Only one piece of the puzzle
"The use of our exoskeletons is, of course, only one building block, a piece of the puzzle, so to speak, on the way to ergonomically optimal workplaces. Wherever possible, we first and foremost optimize work processes and use technical lifting aids such as height-adjustable lifting tables, ride-on lift trucks, high-lift trucks, presenters and height-adjustable conveyor belts," explains plant manager Wolfertstetter. "The exoskeletons are a long-term investment in the health of our employees, and we want to increase their number even more. Of course, the people who benefit most and in the long term are
the colleagues who are still young today from this physical relief." Health manager Sabine Ortbauer adds: "We really take the health of our employees very seriously and want everyone to be able to retire healthy and fit. This is a matter close to our hearts and is anchored in the management." For this reason, he said, the company has been offering its workforce a wide variety of health-promoting programs since 2012. "These include flexible working time models, job sharing, flexible shift assignments and the company's own 'Käsemäuse' kindergarten."
Ortbauer lists. She is particularly proud of the company's own health lounge with six vibration plates, fascia rollers, gymnastic mats and drinking water dispensers, which anyone can use, and the possibility for all employees to make an appointment with a partner physiotherapist within a short time. "You usually have to wait a long time for that. With us, it's quick and so initial complaints are treated promptly. That helps prevent serious and protracted complaints." Manuel Kroiß also takes advantage of some of these offers
and couldn't have imagined going home in the evening without back pain and muscle tension a few years ago. "All I can say is that without my exoskeleton, my back would probably tweak a lot more often. That's where I'm really grateful to my employer for making this possible." He smiles, turns around and goes back to his palletizing workstation, where many hundreds of cartons full of cheese pieces still need to be moved by the end of the shift.
Source: Scroll catalog (bgn.de) (17.10.2022)