Robots, Automation, and Workplace Safety: 7 Common Hazards
It’s been more than thirty years since OSHA published Guidelines for Robotics Safety in 1987. Since then, automated systems and are robots are used in all kinds of industries to complete all types of jobs – from material handling to fabrication to security.
Robotics have given companies the chance to dramatically increase operational efficiency while ensuring a high level of quality control. Automation is often used to improve safety – but it can also introduce a bevy of hazards to the workplace.
As automation equipment – robotics, palletizers, conveyors, automation cells, pickers, etc. – becomes more accessible, their use is expected to become more common. According to a report published by Oxford Economics, robots are expected to displace 20 million manufacturing jobs worldwide by 2030. Either way the trend falls, safety is critical.
For the most part, automation is viewed by the majority as a benefit to employee safety. Robotics are an ideal solution for completing repetitive, potentially hazardous, or unsafe tasks. Depending on the machine, the use of robotics can keep workers out of toxic environments and/or extreme environments.
That is not to say automation is inherently and completely safe. OSHA has identified four types of workplace robot accidents:
- Impact or Collision Accidents: Component malfunctions, unexpected program changes, and unpredicted movements can result in accident between the robot and the worker.
- Crushing and Trapping Accidents: Workers are driven into and crushed by equipment or a worker’s body part is stuck between the robot arm/equipment and other peripheral equipment.
- Mechanical Part Accidents: A few examples of mechanical part accidents include the release of parts, breakdown of drive components, of failure of end-effector power tools.
- Other Accidents: This general category is a catchall for all other accidents that can result from working with robots.
Addressing Robot + Automation Hazards
It’s important to conduct risk assessments before, during, and after the installation; conducting a thorough risk assessment is the very first step in understanding and controlling these hazards. Studies have actually shown that “heavy reliance on automated processes may also result in complicity in human behavior,” which causes more accidents!
There are several hazard sources an employer or safety manager should be aware of:
- Human Errors: While human error can affect programming causing unexpected movement or actions by the robot, OSHA identifies the greatest problem is familiarity with the redundant motions of the robot. When workers feel too familiar, they place themselves in a dangerous position while servicing or programming the robot.
Solution: Safety managers and operators can be more comfortable around the machine when they are involved in installation and subsequent inspections. To prevent operators from working in the path of the robot or in an otherwise dangerous position, machine guards must be in place. Safeguarding robotics must comply with the requirements for machinery and machine guarding in OSHA standard 1310.212.
- Control Errors: These errors include intrinsic faults within the programmable logic control (PLC, or control panel), software errors, radiofrequency interference and electromagnetic interference. Control errors may also result from faults in the hydraulic, pneumatic, or electrical subcontrols associated with the equipment/systemX.
Solution: The controls software and hardware should be inspected periodically to ensure everything is operating smoothly. In the case of a control error/malfunction, it’s important to have procedures established and documented.
- Unauthorized Access: Accidents often result when employees unfamiliar with safeguards enters the work envelope (area the robot works in).
Solution: Safeguarding devices like pressure sensitive mats, laser scanners, and light curtains are all ways to keep employees from any unauthorized entrances. Additionally, safety signs to alert workers to robots in operation or robotic areas should be posted for everyone to clearly see.
- Mechanical failures: Faulty or unexpected operation can occur even if operating programs have been inspected.
Solution: Regular and through inspections of the robot or robot equipment is critical to preventing any malfunctions. As recommended by OSHA, an inspection program should include the recommendations of the robot manufacturer as well as associated equipment like conveyor mechanisms, tooling, parts feeders, and more.
- Environmental sources: Radio-frequency interference or electromagnetic interference can “exert an undesirable influence on robotic operation,” in turn increasing the potential for anyone working in the area. Environmental sources also includes any unintended items left in the work envelope.
Solution: Environmental hazards can include dust, arc flash, or even power cords. Before the robot is put into operation, it’s important to document solutions to environmental hazards and clean the area.
- Power Systems: Power sources (pneumatic, hydraulic, or electrical) cab disrupt signals to the control system or power-supply lines. Electrical overloads increase the potential of fire risks and workers are at risk for electrical shock when stored energy is accumulated and unexpectedly released.
Solution: The safe de-energization of a robot falls under standard 1910.147, which address lockout/tagout requirements. Make sure you have established lockout/tagout procedures and personnel in charge of programming, maintaining, or repairing robots receives adequate safety training.
- Improper installation: As with other types of equipment, faulty installation can inherently lead to a number of hazards later down the road.
Solution: All robots and robot systems should be installed according to the manufacturer’s recommendations and should conform with all acceptable (and applicable) industry standards. OSHA recommends meeting the minimum requirements detailed in Section 5 of ANSI/RIA R15.06 – Installation of Robots and Robot Systems.
As technology advances, robots and AI are likely to find their way into more and more workplaces. Adding automation and smarter technology can be incredibly beneficial to your business if you take the time and effort to address safety concerns.
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