Are our workers the ‘Iron Man’ or Terminator of the future and what does this mean for wellbeing?

For Highways and Construction workers of the not-so-distant future, the term “suit up” may not be something of a Marvel movie but instead refer to sporting a metal Exosuit – an exoskeleton for construction workers – which provides robotic strength, even if it doesn’t quite bestow them with the powers of Iron Man.

The technology to give people superhuman strength is currently being developed but the ethical questions about whether we should be developing it and in what circumstances it should be used, are only just beginning to be asked.

An exoskeleton, or Exosuit as is it now commonly being referred to, as the name suggests, is an external frame that can be worn to support the body, either to help a person overcome an injury or to enhance their biological capacities. Powered by a system of electric motors, the frame gives limbs extra movement, strength and endurance.

These have been used in healthcare over the last few years but, as with any innovative product, our industry is now latching onto the fact we may be able to see a benefit but the simple question exists, if we push our bodies beyond their normal physical limits, what does this do for our wellbeing?

At first glance many would say nothing, however, let me pose the simple question – if a regular working day was over the course of 8 hours, yet, through the use of exoskeletons we were able to extend that then what would be the impact on our levels of mental fatigue?

Imagine if you were suddenly asked to work 50% longer every day across your 5-day week job. Come Friday, how would you feel mentally? Simply put … shattered.

Imagine that becoming the norm across our sector; what would that do to the wellbeing of our workforce and in short would an innovation designed to ease the pressure on our people effectively load more pressure on their wellbeing, and as a consequence make them more prone to an accident due to excessive levels of fatigue?

An exoskeleton is an external frame that can be worn to support the body, either to help a person overcome an injury or to enhance their biological capacities

So …. What are robotic exosuits and how can they benefit our industry?

A robotic suits’ metal framework somewhat mirrors the wearer’s internal skeletal structure. The suit makes lifted objects feel much lighter, and sometimes even weightless, reducing injuries and improving compliance.

Currently, these suits have had a limited impact within our industry although supporters argue that they allow workers to perform duties for longer and over a period of time show significant health benefits in terms of repetitive muscle injuries.

Instead of asking ourselves if this is morally right then perhaps we should ask those performing repetitive daily tasks, something which we all know lead to issues with the human body in later life if this is something they favour.

In short, can an exoskeleton assist with long term health, and should we instead of looking at it as a safety critical tool instead examine its health benefits or does it simply become a way of employers squeezing an extra inch of of the workforce for financial gain?

In a recent blog for Safer Highways, Tricia Hughes of  Skanska states that a minimum of 7.2% of workplace accidents could be effectively attributed to fatigue.

I, probably like many of you who have responsible positions, often push our bodies beyond what we could or should commonly accept to be its mental and physical limits – and effectively pay the price of exhaustion at the end of the week.

Imagine if we could do this and still go home with the energy to play with our children, cook the dinner or indeed give the wife some attention rather than simply slumping on the sofa. Utopia, I hear you cry, where do we sign up,

I wish it were that simple –  like many innovations there are many hurdles to overcome, and indeed we need to understand if these are hurdles we are wish to tackle or, if indeed instead, we are opening Pandora’s box to the archaic employers (we all know still exist) and which many of us strive to eliminate in terms of employee exploitation.

To do this as with all new innovations we must understand them.

The Perfect Pianist – an argument for.

PhD student Tyler Clites posed the scenario of a piano player who has developed arthritis.

In considering how technology could help that person regain their skills, he started asking if he could go even further.

“Why not go from a B piano player to an A++ piano player and be someone who can reach keys or create new types of sound patterns that no human has ever created before?” he asked the BBC on a visit to the lab

“I find it very interesting that often as humans we are satisfied with where we are, with some baseline that we have set arbitrarily.”

Using a technique they call neuro-embodied design, Mr Clites’s team is finding ways of extending the human nervous system into the synthetic world and vice versa.

At the centre of the laboratory is a treadmill fitted with devices that measure how much force is used when people walk or run. Above it are motion-capture cameras that work out exactly how people move their joints and muscles.

The data helps them design a system to help people run or walk faster or more efficiently.

Running forever – effectively something which could enable our workers to work for longer periods at a higher intensity- imagine if we were to apply this to daily tasks within not just highways and construction but also beyond into wider infrastructure.

Mr Clites’s  states that,

“The students want to push the boundaries of the technology behind what our current biological frames will allow. Normal seems to be something of a dirty word.

“Right now someone can use a forklift to lift heavy materials but if they were able to wear an exoskeleton that allowed them to do the same thing, it would perhaps better connect them to the task they are performing,” Mr Clites said.

The hope is that the current big, bulky exoskeletons can be shrunk to the “form factor of a boot and associated shin guard” or even be contained within “high-performance clothing” – or in our industry the PPE of the future, something all of us effectively strive for and which is one of the common themes of this year’s SH L!ve event.

Are our workers the ‘Iron Man’ or ‘Terminator” of the future of Health, Safety and Wellbeing

But then there are Ethical questions – an argument against

Prof Noel Sharkey, the co-founder for the Foundation for Responsible Robotics, is worried by the idea of technology that allows humans to work longer hours.

“You could have exoskeletons on sites that would help people not get so physically tired, but working longer would make you mentally tired and we don’t have a means of stopping that,” he told the BBC.

“We design these systems and then ask whether it might be misused. We need an ethical design from the start and I would design exoskeletons that switch themselves off after six hours.”

However, Mr Clites does not want to limit the technology.  “We don’t stop building cars because some people will drive drunk,” he told the BBC.

“We look at technology and think that if the benefits outweigh the risk for people to abuse it.”

In short, will this just become another way for antiquated supervisors to force our people to “JFDI” (an acronym I am sure we are all familiar with) and the robotics become a tool to push our people harder and further?

 More questions than answers

Whilst we can all see the obvious benefits of utilising robotics to prevent harm to the health of our people we must ask ourselves what the price for doing so may be.

At the same time as harnessing the technology at our fingertips (literally), we must also temper that with a degree of understanding and training for those we are tasking with putting our people to work.

Without that exoskeletons and other associated technology will simply become a way of pushing our workforce harder for longer on a slippery road where, as organisations, we see massive financial gains from atomisation and robotic assistance at the expense of human skills.

At the top of the article I asked the question – are our Roadworkers and their processes becoming the Iron Man or the Terminators of our future – the truth is I don’t think any of us know at this stage. What I would suggest is that whilst we must embrace technological innovation we must do so with mindfulness at the price of allowing this to ‘fall into the wrong hands.’

Innovation is a jewel which must be treated with care by those who understand its true value.

Kevin Robinson is Chief Operating Officer of Safer Highways and Programme Lead on SHL!ve – the first industry showcase around Health, Safety and Wellbeing.