The use of robotics is becoming increasingly common in the workplace. And there is no doubt that this has resulted in improvements to safety and health. However, robotics have their own risks and hazards that can negatively affect the work environment, too.
Let’s take a closer look at the impact of robotics on safety and health. Our analysis will review both sides of the story…improved outcomes as well as new challenges.
How Workplace Robotics Improve Safety and Health
Robotics provide a number of opportunities to improve workplace safety and health. This is primarily because robots can take the place of employees in potentially hazardous environments.
Robots can reduce the risk of falls from height
One example of this is when robotics are used in the warehouse, and how they help to minimize fall hazards for traditional workers. Robotic machinery can reach items that are too high up for employees. It can reduce or even eliminate the need for workers to operate aerial lift equipment.
Robots can reduce the risk of MSDs
Another way that the use of robotics has helped reduce workplace injuries is in the manufacturing industry. Exoskeleton robots can reduce the need for workers to perform repetitive motion tasks, which often lead to musculoskeletal disorders (MSDs).
Robots can reduce the number of injuries associated with lifting heavy objects
Robotics can also be used to reduce the need for workers to lift or carry heavy objects. This results in fewer back injuries for employees and significant savings for the employer in health insurance and workers’ compensation costs.
Robots can reduce the number of injuries associated with worker fatigue
Yet another advantage of robotic machinery is that they can work for extended periods of time without needing a break. Unlike their human counterparts, a robot’s performance does not decline the longer they remain at work.
This benefit translates into better management of worker fatigue.
Studies show that workers face a greater risk of injury when they are tired, have been working long hours, or at certain times of the day such as just before or after taking a break. Robots effectively reduce the number of injuries that could otherwise be attributed to fatigue.
Hazards Associated with Workplace Robotics
In recent years, there have been a number of injuries and even fatalities that resulted from interaction between workers and robotic machinery.
In a fatality case from 2015, a warehouse employee at a bottled water company was killed after being crushed by the forks on a robotic, driverless forklift known as an LGV (laser-guided vehicle).
LGVs are equipped with safety sensors that are designed to detect objects or workers within their path. When the sensors detect an obstacle, the LGV automatically stops moving and an alarm sounds until an employee removes the object.
The manufacturer’s manual requires workers to initiate an “emergency stop” before removing an obstacle. This prevents the forklift from immediately resuming its normal activities once the object has been removed.
In this case from 2015, the sensor’s alarm was triggered by a piece of plastic wrap underneath the elevated forks of the LGV. Unfortunately, the victim did not initiate the emergency stop, and was crushed by the forklift after it resumed its automated functions.
Other hazards associated with workplace robotics include:
- Increased ergonomic risks with new forms of human-machine interaction.
- Exposure to new risks, such as electromagnetic fields, lasers, etc.
- Accidents that can result from lack of understanding, knowledge, or control of robotic work processes.
Finding the Right Balance
It’s important for employers to properly assess new risks and hazards that could be introduced with the implementation of robotic machinery.
Because this technology is so new, OSHA does not yet have any standards in place on this particular topic. However, additional research is currently underway.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) recently established the Center for Occupational Robotic Research, which serves to better understand how to work safely with robots.
In the meantime, be aware of both the risks and benefits of using robotic machinery in your workplace. Be sure to adequately train your employees and follow all manufacturer recommendations.