Occupational Safety in the Age of Robotics

View all blog posts under Articles

When humans work alongside machines, human safety is paramount.The use of robotics is becoming increasingly common in the workplace. Long a staple in the automotive industry, robots have moved into sectors such as food and consumer goods, plastics and rubber, life sciences and electronics, according to the Robotics Industries Association (RIA), a trade association that promotes robotics and automation.

Robot sales in the United States reached nearly 38,000 units as of 2018, the International Robotics Federation (IFR) announced in April 2019, setting a record for the eighth year in a row.

Robot density – a measurement of the number of robots per 10,000 workers in an industry – is up to 200 in the United States, the IFR reports. That number is twice the robot density of China (97 per 10,000 workers) but a fraction of the number used in South Korea and Singapore (710 and 658, respectively).

But when humans work alongside machines, human safety is paramount. Occupational safety professionals need to be aware of the hazards and safety protocols needed to keep workers safe.

A bachelor degree in occupational health and safety from Eastern Kentucky University can be a step toward a variety of occupational health and safety careers, including becoming a leader in environments that include robotics.

What are Robots?

Industrial robots, according to the United States Department of Labor Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA), are “programmable multifunctional mechanical devices designed to move material, parts, tools, or specialized devices through variable programmed motions to perform a variety of tasks. Robots are used to perform unsafe, hazardous, highly repetitive, and unpleasant tasks.”

From material handling and assembly to welding, spraying and painting, workplace robots allow for a more productive—and more efficient—way to control costs and increase overall production.

According to Safety & Health magazine, certain robots are more likely to be found in professional settings, including:

  • Industrial robot: A robot that is automatically controlled and programmable. It can be either fixed in place or mobile and is commonly used in applications such as manufacturing, inspection, packaging and assembly.
  • Professional service robot: One that performs commercial tasks outside of industrial applications, such as cleaning, delivery, firefighting or surgery.
  • Mobile robot: One that can travel under its own control, for instance in a warehouse or in military settings. They may be autonomous or guided.
  • Collaborative robot: Highly complex robots specifically designed to perform tasks with humans.

Mishaps are most likely to occur when workers aren’t where they normally are, usually conducting necessary maintenance, testing, or programming. Robots are rarely sophisticated enough to know whether a person is nearby.

The best safety tactic is staying away from any robot that is in motion or carrying out a scheduled task, according to Carole Franklin, the RIA’s director of standards development.

“What we’ve been dealing with so far is a robot that is fixed in place, so a person has to approach the robot in order to be exposed to its hazards,” Franklin said.

Robotics Safety Rules

So far, robotics safety rules are few. While OSHA has no specific standards for the robotics industry, workers who come into close proximity with industrial robots are entitled to certain rights and protections, including:

  • Working in an environment free of serious harmful risks
  • Receiving information and training about workplace hazards and hazard prevention
  • Being able to review records of injuries that have taken place on the job
  • Asking OSHA to inspect their workplace if a serious hazard exists and also if their employer is not following OSHA rules
  • The ability to legally report an injury or point out any discovered health and safety concerns without fear of retaliation

Future Safety Trends

Robots were originally designed to be operated at a distance from humans, Safety & Health points out. The first safety strategies – which mostly set forth standards for keeping humans away from the machines – were published by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) in 1984 after a die-cast operator died when he was pinned between a hydraulic robot and a steel pole.

As industrial robots become increasingly prevalent, occupational safety professionals need to understand both current and upcoming safety initiatives.

OSHA’s existing technical manual outlines the hazards, investigation guidelines and controls necessary for safeguarding personnel. To get a better idea of the risks workers are facing, OSHA is also considering an update to its rules governing the use of machines in the workplace. The agency has requested information from those most likely to be affected, including those working side-by-side with collaborative robotics.

In addition, RIA has worked with both the American National Standards Institute and the International Organization for Standardization to examine and update guidelines for humans working with machines. Current safety standards account for collaborative robots, and recent specifications address safety considerations in establishing a collaborative robot system.

About Eastern Kentucky University’s Online Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety (BSOS) Degree

Eastern Kentucky University’s online bachelor degree in occupational health and safety is designed to prepare graduates to protect the health and safety of workers in a variety of environments, including those that include interactions with robots.

Students can also fulfill the requirements for a minor in Fire and Safety Engineering Technology and may also qualify for the Institute of Safety and Health Management’s Associate Safety Health Manager designation.

For more information, contact EKU now.

Recommended Reading:

Robots and Drones Saving Lives in Disaster Areas

The Benefits & Challenges of Using Artificial Intelligence for Emergency Management

Occupational Safety Students Benefit from Certification


Robotics stats: RIA

Robotics sales and density: IFR

Industrial robotics definition: OSHA

Types of robots: Safety & Health

RIA quote: Safety and Health Magazine

Worker rights: OSHA

OSHA safety: OSHA

Safety trends: Insurance Journal