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What exoskeletons and robotics can do

The AUVA information event "Exoskeletons and robotics: application in employee:internal protection in health care facilities", which recently took place in Kaprun, vividly demonstrated the possible applications for exoskeletons and robots in employee:internal protection in health care facilities.

Experts from various fields provided comprehensive information on this topic and presented their exhibits. The event, which took place both in person and online, was very well received and the participants had the opportunity to try out exoskeletons themselves on site.

Use of exoskeletons

Exoskeletons are physically supportive assistance systems worn on the body that are designed to support body postures and body forces, thereby counteracting physical strain. "What can this support start with and how far are we in using it in the working world?" These and many other questions could be answered to the participants:participants in the course of this symposium. Support aids can already be applied on a very small scale. Various systems are used, such as a glove equipped with pressure sensors, called the "Iron Hand", which exerts force support on contact with an object and thus relieves the forearm muscles.

Basically, three categories of exoskeletons can be distinguished:

Category 1: Support location

Depending on the location of the support, a distinction is made between systems intended for the whole body, as well as only for the lower extremities, only torso, shoulders and arms. Likewise, there are also systems for the hands only on the market.

Category 2: Energy supply

According to the type of energy supply, a distinction is made between "active" systems driven by electric motors and "passive" exoskeletons consisting of spring and cable mechanisms. Active systems are not yet in use in Austria.

Category 3: Field of application

This group includes systems that support posture as well as posture and strength. One example is a support for the neck, known as the "Paexo Neck," for activities that take place overhead. They are mainly used in the automotive industry. For alternating activities involving standing and sitting, there is a device attached to the body called a "chairless chair". It makes it possible for employees to sit down spontaneously without the device interfering with the person standing.

Practical results in comparison

Exoskeletons are promoted as a solution to reduce physical hazards in the workplace and prevent work-related musculoskeletal disorders. Short videos were used to present systems already in use during the event. The variety of models and different application possibilities, especially also in health care facilities, were vividly presented by AUVA staff members of the Department for Accident Prevention and Occupational Disease Control and by an expert from the LKH University Hospital Graz.

Concrete examples were compared and discussed with results of an AUVA ergonomics project conducted by Norbert Lechner at the University Clinic for Dentistry and the University Clinic for Neurology of the Tyrol Clinics in Innsbruck. The effects of arm support during dental treatments and the influence of a shoulder exoskeleton in the context of a surgery simulation in neurosurgery were investigated in this project. At Medizinprodukteaufbereitung Tirol GmbH, the effect of two different back-supporting exoskeletons on lifting and carrying activities was investigated by AUVA using measurement technology. These results, which were sometimes inconclusive due to the complex work tasks, were also presented.

Reduction of load peaks

From the perspective of occupational science, the goals and potentials of exoskeletons lie in the reduction of stress and the improvement of working conditions. The main aim is to reduce stress peaks. The challenges are manifold. In addition to adaptability, hygiene, safety, voluntary use, stress impact and usability, and even the modification of movement executions, force redirection or force dissipation in particular is a major issue. Exoskeletons do not perform biomechanical miracles, the effort required is not reduced to zero, the forces are only redistributed to other regions. Whether the hype about exoskeletons will continue or they will disappear from the working world again remains to be seen. However, it will be necessary to constantly evaluate the rapidly ongoing processes under the use of the technologies in practice with regard to the impact on the workers:inside. The benefits and long-term consequences will continue to be the subject of research.

Applications vividly presented

With a lecture on the surgical robot "DaVinci" - the extended arm of surgery - the participants were informed about technologies that will significantly change the everyday work of surgeons. In the future, it will be necessary to offer not only medical qualifications but also special training in the operation of surgical robots.

The symposium showed that assistance systems will become increasingly important in the world of work and that the use of robotics can also play an important role in the health sector in the near future. The aim of the event was to provide comprehensive information about exoskeletons and robots to safety experts, safety officers, occupational physicians, managers and works councils of healthcare facilities. Possible applications showing how this technology can be used were explained in order to support employees - especially in health care facilities - in their activities and, above all, to relieve them physically. (as)

Source: What exoskeletons and robotics can do: (16.01.2023)

Tom Illauer

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