THE EMERGING RISKS OF ROBOTICS IN THE WORKPLACE
Caution: Maintain a respectful distance
When I was a young boy, I loved the TV show Lost in Space. The family had a robot that was a trusted companion to their son, Will Robinson. The robot was famous for saying, “danger, danger” and waving its mechanical arms whenever it detected a threat. Fast forward 50 years and robots are becoming more and more a part of our lives and our environment. But as they assimilate into our everyday lives, robots also bring with them a certain level of danger.
The news report went like this: A woman employee was killed in an industrial accident at a local manufacturing plant after being trapped by robotic machinery, according to a Department of Public Safety news release. The worker was 57 years old and worked for this company for 12 years. She leaves behind her husband, two grown children, and two grandchildren. OSHA is investigating.
This type of story is repeated way too often, when a smart human employee gets in the way of a dumb robot.
Robots have long been used in factories and warehouses to drill and weld parts, move items from one conveyor to another, or simply to load boxes. They are utilized for any task that needs to be repeated multiple times. And they don’t need lunch breaks, health benefits, vacation time or work comp insurance. They just work.
We are starting to see a new generation of robots affecting the way people work, drive, and shop, from driverless cars to drones that deliver packages. But do experts worry about the dangers that robots pose to the human beings who work alongside them?
According to data from OSHA, robots have caused at least 33 workplace deaths and injuries in the United States in the last 30 years. That may not sound like many, but the number is sure to increase in the years ahead, when next-generation robots will have much more autonomy and freedom to move on their own.
“For robots to work more productively, they must escape from their cages and be able to work alongside people,” said Kent Massey, director of advanced programs at HDT Robotics. “To achieve this goal safely, robots must become more like people. They must have eyes and a sense of touch, as well as the intelligence to use those senses.”
Until now, robots have mostly been used in manufacturing, particularly in the auto industry. They have mostly been “dumb robots,” designed for repetitive tasks that are dirty, dangerous, and/or dull. They operate in protected envelopes that can pose a great danger to employees who venture into their space.
As risk advisors, we need to be aware of emerging
risks and educate clients so they can react to protect their employees. Recently, after OSHA’s evaluation of the aforementioned fatal incident, they made general recommendations that are applicable to all establishments and workers who use or anticipate using robots. These recommendations pertain to three categories: ergonomic design, training, and supervision.
- Safety fences with interlocking gates, rather than rails, should be used to fence off active robots.
The purpose of the fence is to prevent unauthorized entry into the range of the robot’s moving parts.
- Free-standing steel posts—designed to restrict the movement of the robot’s arm in case a “loss of control” is experienced—may provide man-sized pinch points where an unsuspecting worker could become trapped.
Extensive training should be provided for employees who will be programming, operating, or maintaining robots. This training should be safety-oriented and should instruct employees in the methods of programming, starting up, and stopping the robot. Newly trained employees may require close supervision until they adjust to the robot. Specific aspects of any training program should include/stress the following points:
- Operators should never be in the work envelope while the robot is operational.
- Because programming must be done inside the work envelope while the robot is operational, programmers should operate the robot at a slow, safe speed in order to be made aware of all the possible pinch points where their body or extremities could be trapped.
- Training is not only needed for
inexperienced workers, but refresher courses should be provided for experi-
enced robot programmers and operators,
as well. The refresher courses will allow the experienced workers to remain up-to-date with new technology advance-
ments and be able to reveal any
problems or hazards that they might have experienced.
- During programming, the robot should be stopped at each intermediate step, and all possible pinch points should be identified and eliminated, if possible. Possible pinch points should be considered on all sides of the robot.
- During the safety and training
course, the following statements should be emphasized: “If the robot is stopped, don’t assume that it will remain stopped,” and, “If a robot is repeating a motion, don’t assume that it will continue to repeat only that motion.”
- Strict enforcement of a set of clearly written safety rules that reflect the company’s safety program is essential to ensure the protection of the worker. Disciplinary action should be taken against anyone who enters the work envelope without first putting the robot on hold or in a “power down” condition.
- Supervisors should be cognizant of the fact that operators experienced at automated tasks may become bored, overconfident, or lose concern for safety. These conditions may increase the workers’ risk of injury.
This is important information that needs to get into the hands of our clients so that they can complete hazard assessments and train their employees to become aware of the possible dangers of their robotic co-workers and, thus, help keep them safe.
Randy Boss, CRM, CRA, SHRM-SCP, is a Certified Risk Architect at Ottawa Kent in Jenison, Michigan. As a Risk Architect he designs, builds and implements risk management and insurance plans for middle market companies in the areas of human resources, property/casualty and benefits. He has 39 years of experience and has been at Ottawa Kent for 34 years. He is a lead instructor for the Institute of Benefit & Wellness Advisors, training agents in how to bring risk management to benefits, and co-founder of OSHAlogs.com, an OSHA compliance and injury management platform. You can reach Randy at firstname.lastname@example.org