Assessing MSDs before Introduction of a Cobot: Psychosocial Aspects and Employee’s Subjective Experience
Emma Cippelletti, Soufian Azouaghe, Damien Pellier and Aurélie Landry
Volume : 78-1 (2023)
Musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs) are a leading cause of work disability, affecting workers across various industries. In an effort to improve working conditions and prevent MSDs, researchers have proposed several solutions, including the use of cobotic systems. A recent study aimed to identify the risk factors for MSDs among workers on a screen-printed glass production line prior to the introduction of a cobot. The study by Emma Cippelletti, Soufian Azouaghe, Damien Pellier et Aurélie Landry employed a mixed data collection technique, including video observations, expert ergonomist assessments, self-confrontation interviews with production-line operators, and subjective perception evaluations.
MSDs are primarily caused or exacerbated by the workplace environment and conditions. They manifest as discomfort and pain in joints, muscles, and soft tissues, often leading to tendinitis, nerve compression syndrome, and lower back pain. These disorders have multiple origins and are influenced by physical, organizational, psychosocial, and individual factors. Physical factors include repetitive movements, improper postures, excessive physical effort, and body vibrations. Organizational and psychosocial factors encompass task organization, work pace, job autonomy, social support, and more. Sociodemographic and individual factors such as age, sex, education level, and medical history also play a role.
Assessing the risk factors associated with MSDs is crucial for prevention and minimizing their consequences. However, this task is complex due to the multifactorial nature of MSDs and the various challenges involved. Treatment can also be challenging as MSDs have diverse etiologies and are perceived differently by different stakeholders. Moreover, there may be a lack of time, equipment, and skills required for effective interventions.
Cobotics, a collaborative robotic system, offers a promising approach to organizing work and production processes. By enhancing operational efficiency, productivity, and automation, cobots aim to reduce the drudgery of working conditions and limit the risks of MSDs. Unlike traditional robots, cobots collaborate and physically interact with human operators, working together in shared workspaces.
The study found that both physical and psychosocial factors were significant risk factors for MSDs among the workers. Expert assessments and operator interviews revealed some differences in their perceptions of these risk factors. The most challenging factors identified by experts were physical (e.g., work posture) and psychosocial (e.g., mental workload), while the operators highlighted the pace of work, body position, work atmosphere, and repetitive movements. This disparity in perception emphasizes the importance of considering subjective experiences and the meaningfulness of work when introducing cobots into the workplace.
When asked which tasks they would delegate to cobots, operators expressed preferences based on their individual experiences and priorities. Some operators wanted cobots to handle physically demanding tasks, while others preferred to delegate mentally demanding tasks. These varying preferences underscore the importance of understanding the operators' perspectives and finding ways to maintain the meaning and value of work during cobot integration.
The study also identified the need to consider human resource issues, such as skills development, career path support, and organizational factors that impact employee health. Additionally, the study highlighted the challenges of assessing psychosocial risks for workers with special cognitive needs, who may perceive certain factors differently.