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Exoskeleton vest supports manual lifting work

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Contractor Willmott Dixon is trialling a new exoskeleton vest.

The firm hopes that this innovation will revolutionise how workers on site carry out their day-to-day tasks and eliminate the injuries and health problems which result.

According to the Health & Safety Executive, construction is second only to agriculture in terms of industries with the highest rates of musculoskeletal disorders – conditions which affect the joints, bones and muscles and back.

Musculoskeletal problems

Of the 82,000 construction workers suffering from work-related ill health in 2018, 62% or 51,000 of these had musculoskeletal problems. While 1.2% of workers in other sectors have musculo-skeletal disorders, the rate among construction workers is almost double, at 2.3%. UK industries lose a total of 6.6M working days to this issue every year. Musculoskeletal problems are not only bad for workers, they are bad for business.

The vest being trialled by Willmott Dixon works in a similar way to a hiking rucksack. In concept, loads normally taken by a person’s arms are carried instead by the vest, which transfers them via a rigid external “spine” to a waist belt which in turn transfers the loads to the legs.

In practice, when the wearer’s arms are raised up to around shoulder height, a pair of highly compressed springs “kick in” so that the loads are taken by the vest, not the human body. It requires no batteries or power supply and different springs can be screwed into a shoulder socket on the vest to adjust the amount of support it provides. Up to 6.8kg of assistance can be given to each arm. “Simple done smartly” as Willmott Dixon design manager Chris Townsend puts it.

It’s just a means of assistance to make the jobs safer and more productive

The vest is being developed to eliminate aches, pains and injuries caused by repetitive overhead tasks. It is not, he stresses, to allow people to lift much heavier weights.

“That’s the perception, everyone says: ‘ah, you’re Iron Man, you can start lifting more bricks’ and we’ve got to try and manage that a bit,” Townsend says. “Some of the early feedback was that it’s just an excuse to just try to get people to lift things they shouldn’t be.

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The vest is work like a rucksack

“But we have to counteract that and say, ‘no, it’s the tasks that they’re doing already and that the industry permits’. It’s just a means of assistance to make the jobs safer and more productive.”

The new innovation has been designed by Californian tech company EksoBionics, which started out designing a full body skeleton to help people who are paralysed to walk again.

Sectors, such as car manufacturing, are already using it in the United States. But it has yet to take off in the UK and that is where Willmott Dixon comes in.

The idea for using the vest came to Townsend while on holiday in the United States. News stories about the vest’s launch caught his attention and he immediately saw the benefits it could have.

Focus group

Back in the UK, he raised the idea in a Willmott Dixon Fit meeting, an internal focus group set up to investigate new technologies across all industries to see if any could be applied to construction.

Shortly afterwards, Willmott Dixon set up the Eureka programme. This is a platform for any employee to suggest and submit business cases for innovative ideas which they think could have a real benefit in the construction industry.

Within three months, a business case for the exoskeleton was submitted, approval was granted, and the vest ordered and delivered. Townsend believes it is the attitude of Willmott Dixon which allowed the team to invest in the new technology so quickly. The vest was the first idea to be approved.

It’s nice to think when it takes off, we were one of the early adopters and helped shape its future

“We put the business case in early summer last year, it was approved, the order placed in August, and it arrived in September,” he says. “I think in terms of a procurement process that’s quite swift.”

“They said ‘let’s do this and push forward’ and now it paves the way for future ideas.”

Each vest is priced at £5,500 or slightly more when import costs are factored in. But this, he says, will be worth it if it means health and safety on site improves and if productivity increases.

Growing interest

When Willmott Dixon bought the vest, there were only two in the country – the other was a demonstration model for a tool hire company. Since then, Townsend says interest in the vest has risen rapidly.

Up until now, the Willmott Dixon has trialled the vest at several of its sites around Wales. Later this month it will be transferred to one of its housing development sites in Bristol for a longer-term trial.

Plans are also underway to partner with a UK university to hone and publish the data and feedback it receives.

The vest is already being used by car manufacturer Ford, where management described the job of production line workers as akin to lifting a watermelon over your head up to 4,600 times a day – something which will chime with the repetitive nature of some of the jobs in the construction industry.

US trial

After a successful trial in the US, Ford is rolling the vest out to 15 plants and seven countries around the world.

The construction industry is a relatively new market for the technology. Because of this, results from the trials being carried out by Willmott Dixon are being fed back to EksoBionics to improve the concept and tailor it to workers’ needs. Incorporating a tool belt into the waist strap is just one idea which has emerged.

Townsend says one thing is clear, site workers all love using it. After a short period of adjustment while workers get used to the support it provides, no one wants to give it back, he says.

“We’ve had so much good feedback that it’s nice to think when it takes off, we were one of the early adopters and helped shape its future,” he adds. 

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