Robots are already at work in many industries doing packaging, assembly, material handling, and quality testing tasks. A new alliance partnership between the Robotics Industry Association (RIA), National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH), and the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) ensures that worker safety will continue to advance as installation of robotic systems becomes more commonplace.
There are two different kinds of robots being used in the workplace: professional service robots and collaborative robots. The first professional service robot was installed in a General Motors plant in New Jersey in the early 1960s. They are generally large machines that work in isolation behind a cage. An operator who is on the other side gives commands to the robots.
There are also robots that work alongside humans in the same space called collaborative robots. They perform repetitive tasks and are also able to respond to their environment using proximity and force sensors.
OSHA reports that since 1984, there have been 38 robot-related accidents all involving professional service robots. There have been no reported serious incidents involving collaborative robots to date. The alliance aims to improve awareness of the workplace hazards that exist both with robots already in use and with the newest technology of collaborative robot systems. Through information sharing and technical exchange with RIA, OSHA and NIOSH will enhance their technical expertise and help identify what research is needed to reduce workplace hazards.
Education and Outreach
OSHA staff and NIOSH researchers will be gathering information about the hazards associated with the operation of traditional industrial robots as well as the emerging technology of human robot collaboration (HRC). They will then be able to develop tools and resources for employers and employees about robotics safety including the installation of HRC systems, that reflect the most up-to-date best practices. This information will also be promoted through seminars and workshops. Employers will be able to use compliance assistance tools to update their safety programs or develop new ones.
Are Robots Safe?
Use of robotics is becoming far more common as the technology becomes more affordable, but replacing humans entirely is still a long way off. Collaborative systems where robots work alongside humans will most likely be what most workers experience in the near future. In 2015, a worker in Germany was fatally injured while installing a stationary industrial robot leading many to question the safety of robots at work. The worker was inside the metal cage where the robot normally works in isolation. The last fatal work accident in the U.S. involving a robot occurred in 2013. That same year 4,585 workers died overall in workplace accidents. Since 1984, the number of workers killed in robot-related accidents is 27. The newest collaborative robots have lightweight arms and end effectors, reducing the risk of injury from any unintended contact. In case of hacking attempts, many are equipped with hardwired brakes and fail safes.
RIA’s president said that the group developed the first American robot safety standard in 1986 and has been updating it regularly since then. By sharing information on occupational safety, health laws and standards, and the rulemaking process, the new alliance with OSHA and NIOSH will enable the advancement of worker safety into the future as robotics systems spread through the workplace.
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