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In a few years, musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) have risen to the top of the list of occupational diseases in France. According to health insurance, in 2015, MSDs accounted for more than 87% of recognized occupational diseases resulting in a stoppage of work or financial compensation due to after effects. A scourge that costs companies EUR 1 billion in contributions every year and 10 million working days lost.
Ergonomist and Prevention Manager at NavalGroup, Bernard Boulle discusses the approach and the actions undertaken.
Bernard Boulle: “Naval Group has always fought against occupational diseases and accidents at work, including hand accidents. Two principles of our Occupational Health Policy, the “zero accidents at work” and the “gesture well done”, converge the quality of work and the quality of life at work, while preserving the safety of employees. For this, we are continuously developing ergonomics in the workplace.”
“In 2014, we carried out an ergonomic mapping of our workstations. In parallel, we interviewed the field via a questionnaire on MSDs. We renewed these studies in 2017 and 2020. It gives us an overview on the constraints of each position and on musculoskeletal disorders of the lower and upper limbs.”
Bernard Boulle: “Since 2014, we have carried out targeted actions on the back, then on the upper limbs. In 2017, we refined and developed one hundred actions. For work situations where we did not have solutions available, technically and financially, we looked at an emerging and innovative solution, exoskeletons.
“We have tested several types of exoskeletons from several manufacturers, for arm-in-height work, load handling and work with heavy and vibration-generating tools.”
Bernard Boulle: “Yes, we have been testing it since 2019 for metalworkers. Among other things, the metalworkers hits metal sheets with a sledgehammer to form up the metal parts and during welding and deformation operations. We evaluated the usefulness of this glove for hammering operations, already the first tests were positive. Next, we assessed the impact of the glove on operators' vibration exposures. To our surprise, we measured a very large gain on the vibration levels for the use of the glove with the sledge hammer and a lesser degree for the use of the pneumatic needle gun. We still have to do further tests to validate these measurements.”
Bernard Boulle: “The operators use the Ironhand glove®, one for metalworking operations, another for the handling of heavy parts, from 5 to 10 kg. This is an important contribution. Of all the exoskeletons that we testeds, the bionic glove is the only device that immediately excited all the operators and all wanted to test it. It was the first time that an exoskeleton had such a welcome among our teams.
This enthusiasm was confirmed during the tests. The glove is really effective, it already brings and will bring a significant gain for our operators at the level of musculoskeletal constraints, not only at the level of the hand but also at the level of the upper limbs. It is easy to put on and use once properly set. It takes a little time and learning, but the operators are satisfied with the result.
We also tested the glove for pneumatic hammer operations, but we encountered difficulties with the sensors of the glove. A difficulty that should disappear with the new version of the glove released last June”.
Bernard Boulle: “Our metalworkers wear this glove according to their tasks. If they do not have the use of it, they take it off. In general, they use it one to two hours. Above all, they use it when the benefit is greater than the cost of carrying the exoskeleton. It is therefore necessary that the equipment is flexible enough so that the operator can make ground striking like other ancillary tasks, without hindrance. This is the case with the Ironhand® device, easy to put on, lightweight, which does not limit movements and is compact enough to access often cramped military vessels”.
Bernard Boulle: “We made some first measurements. For example, in terms of vibration reduction, the gains are 9 m/s2 with the Ironhand® glove, which is huge for ground striking operations. We will validate these results with new measurements. The health crisis has suspended the tests, we need more time to use the glove in production to validate our results dedicated to MSDs. In parallel, Naval Group's occupational physicians will monitor operators using certain exoskeletons.”
Bernard Boulle: “We are following very closely the evolutions of bioservo's glove. With the version 1, equipped with five sensors, one at the tip of each finger, the handle of the hammer in hand, you can miss to activate of one or more sensors. The new version of the glove is equipped with more sensors. One on the first phalanx of each finger, one on the second phalanx on the index and middle finger, plus a sensor in the palm. We are very interested in these improvements, and we will be able to work better. We are also excited about the integration of artificial intelligence in the processing of the data collected by the glove. The use of the glove required fine tuning, which required follow-up, adjustments and round trips with the operator. With AI, we hope to reduce the setting time and improve efficiency of these settings. It is essential to be able to match the glove's capacities as fairly as possible to the needs of the operator.
Another interesting development of version 2.0 is the possibility of using the Ironhand glove as a means of measurement to more accurately assess the exposure to the efforts of our operators”.
Bernard Boulle: “The acceptance of the exoskeleton is crucial. They have evolved a lot over four years within Naval Group. In 2018, during our first tests, the acceptance was low and the collective rather skeptical. These first exoskeletons were heavy, bulky, imposing. Their wearers compared themselves to Robocop! It lasted a few months. Today, our operators know and are interested in exoskeletons. Our subcontractors are also curious. We introduced them to the models under test at home and we share our feedback with them.”
Bernard Boulle: “The Ironhand glove® is at the end of the validation course for metalworkers. Boilermakers, mechanics and handling worktasks are under study. For exoskeleton deployment, we target populations with higher stresses and the most prone to MSDs of the hands and upper limbs. The objectives, these are the retention, the reduction of accidents and musculoskeletal disorders. It is also the accessibility of women to all our positions and a distribution of innovation as close as possible to our employees on the production sites. Finally, these new tools strengthen the attractiveness of the company for jobs that are hard to recruit to”.
Bernard Boulle: “Retention is essential. We note that even by improving our working conditions, our tools and our organisation, difficult working situations persist. Exoskeletons are part of the solutions that can allow operators to have a better quality of life at work.
In a second step, when the exoskeletons offer a sufficient level of performance, we can integrate them into the workstations as a tool and not as a device to reduce the constraints. We are close, manufacturers are constantly innovating, and the products of tomorrow will be even more efficient. Take the Ironhand® glove, its technical developments are interesting, and their development projects are promising. For many of our trades, this glove will reduce physical constraints and reduce the strenuousness of certain tasks.
Beyond Naval Group, and even beyond the industrial world, the new generations of exoskeletons will be able to contribute to improving the comfort and quality of life of a wide variety of populations, such as people with disabilities and the elderly.”