Michaël bends down, crouches and picks up a cabinet from the floor, which he then places on the bottom of a sink. Curved, he cleans and disinfects it before putting it to dry. And then he starts again. For a year he has been working at the Laundromat Ateliers Saupont, an adapted employment company (ETA) – and one of the largest employers – in the Center Ardennes region. Of course he is called to perform other tasks, but this is his main responsibility. Suffering from psoriatic arthritis and a spongy hernia, by the way, he doesn’t know “not a day without back pain”he comments continuing his work. “We have added a grid in the sink to raise it so that it is less folded”, he continues. But this was not enough to guarantee him adequate working conditions.
More generally, this company specializing in cosmetics, from production to packaging, “It has implemented ergonomic solutions and adapted production lines. Therefore, the workers do not always perform the same task”explains Christelle Collard, director of the packaging department. “But it’s still a factory and the work there is repetitive”she admits.
Call for new technologies
Concerned about the well-being of workers (they are 380, able-bodied and less able) and determined not to add pain to that generated by heavy physical handicaps, the Saupont Ateliers have taken a look at new technologies. After robotizing some lines, they came across exoskeletons during their search.
A few weeks ago, the automated model ordered finally arrived from the north of France. Designed to relieve your back, “it is particularly in demand in the logistics and construction sectors”, specifies Antoine Pawlowski, who came to deliver the product. Positioned on the hips, this medical device surrounds the abdomen. The two cylinders, especially vertical rods, then move automatically according to the movements performed, both from front to back and from side to side. In doing so, them “correct the position and allow you to adopt a good posture”explains Mr. Pawlowski. “Attentionwarns Christelle Collard, the exoskeleton does not replace the muscles but assists them “. Thereby, “it does not increase the capabilities of an individual but takes away some of the discomfort they might feel”.
Short-term prevention, long-term effects
After a few minutes of rehearsal – the concept had already been tested and approved by the workers after training – Michaël has the impression that the two-kilogram belt, albeit imposing, eases the movements that he considered painful. “You have to get used to it,” he smiles at him. But I remain free from my movements. He says he is motivated by the idea of giving this external skeleton a chance. “I’ve tried everything! He adds without departing from his good mood. If that saves my back and picks up my children, I’m a buyer. A back, we only have one … we can’t find second-hand ones!” “The robot-man”.
On the vast packaging platform, where production lines multiply, Laurent, team manager, takes care of the final packaging of a cosmetic product. Seated, this worker with three slipped discs turns from right to left and left to right to collect and place products from one side of the chain to the other. “I wasn’t demanding, he admits. But I’m ready to try.” An hour later, he will go back to his manager, unsatisfied with the feeling that a judging belt gives him “oppressive”.
“The goal is to find suitable solutions to promote employee well-being in the immediate, everyday and long-term”, comments Christelle Collard. The exoskeleton is designed to relieve motion that repeats over time. Like this, he hopes “keep active and reduce the risk of absenteeism”. “This helps sustain quality jobs”says Catherine Vuidar, communications officer at Ateliers Saupont.
Two mechanical exoskeletons for the lower limbs and pelvis will be added to this first model, for the benefit of people suffering from musculoskeletal disorders. “The profits generated by the company with a social purpose are fed back into industrial tools and into people”continues, fueling the hope of “in order to equip as many workers as possible”, despite the non-negligible cost – several thousand euros – of these devices. One more step towards “autonomy and independence of workers” dear to the company, concludes Catherine Vuidar.
Start-ups are increasingly using ETAs
Local economic actors. Opte, Bicloo or Wrapi, these Walloon start-ups have in common the collaboration with adapted employment companies (ETA). “It is more and more like this”, the Walloon Federation of Adapted Work Enterprises (Eweta) rejoices. The success of the partnerships identified in the Wallonia-Brussels Federation attests to the importance of a model in which interests and visions come together and skills are complementary, says Eweta. Both integrated into the local economic fabric, ETA and start-ups are in fact working for its development. Their vision also converges towards sustainable development, respectful of the environment and, often, in a short circuit, motivates the Eweta through a press release.
“Tailored”. Benefiting from a “great technical know-how”, an “ability to adapt, flexibility and versatility”, ETAs seem to be privileged partners for start-ups. Collaboration “allows for flexible manufacturing that suits my needs. It adds even more meaning to my product: […] it is social and ethical by creating local employment “, explains Alyne François, founder of Wrapi.
Valuing workers. ETAs, for their part, also find many advantages. In addition to “diversifying customers”, these partnerships enhance the workers “included in the production process of these initiatives”, welcomes Eweta.