Robotics Safety in the Workplace

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Sparks fly as two robotic arms work on a machine.

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.

For example, the International Federation of Robotics’ (IFR) latest “World Robotics Industrial Robots” report found there were approximately 293,000 industrial robots operating in factories throughout the U.S. in 2020. New robotics sales, the report found, were also strong, and remained on par with the 33,300 units shipped in 2019.

Robot density — a measurement of the number of robots per 10,000 workers in an industry — was up to 228 in the United States in 2019, the IFR reports. That number is 28% higher than the robot density of China (187 per 10,000 workers) but just a fraction of the 855 robots used per 10,000 workers in South Korea.

When humans work alongside machines, human safety is paramount. Occupational safety professionals need to be aware of the hazards and safety protocols required to keep workers safe. Earning a bachelor’s degree in occupational safety can be a step toward any of a variety of occupational health and safety careers, including becoming a leader in an environment that uses robotics.

What Are Robots in the Workplace?

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.”

Examples of robots in the workplace include automotive industry robots, welding robots, aircraft inspection robots, industrial floor scrubbers and order assembly robots (such as those used by retailers like Amazon). 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: This is 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: This type performs commercial tasks outside of industrial applications, such as cleaning, delivery, firefighting or surgery.
  • Mobile robot: This one can travel under its own control, for instance in a warehouse or in military settings. It may be autonomous or guided.
  • Collaborative robot: This highly complex robot is specifically designed to perform tasks with humans.

Mishaps with robots 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

So far, robotics safety rules are few. While OSHA has yet to publish specific standards for the robotics industry, those who work in close proximity to industrial robots are entitled to certain rights and protections. Examples of worker protections afforded by OSHA, including for those who work with industrial robots, include the following:

  • 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
  • Being permitted to file a confidential complaint with OSHA to have their workplace inspected
  • Asking OSHA to inspect their workplace if a serious hazard exists and also if their employer is not following OSHA rules
  • Retaining the ability to legally report an injury or point out any discovered health and safety concerns without fear of retaliation

Robotics Safety Training

Companies using robotic automation must make safety their utmost concern, and workers must be taught they cannot be complacent about the hazards of automation. For example, managers must ensure that workspaces are clearly marked, and educate employees about which floor spaces they need to stay away from when a robot is operating.

Additionally, robot operators must be trained on how and when to safely intervene if a robot stops or malfunctions during operation. If a company is using multiple robots, separate training should be conducted for each one.

Future of Robots

In the upcoming years, it’s projected that industrial robots will be less expensive and have greater technical capabilities. This, combined with advances in technology that allow robot manufacturers to assemble, install and maintain robots faster and at a lower cost than could be achieved in the past, are expected to have a positive impact on the industrial robotics sector.

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.

Learn About Robotics Safety with an Occupational Safety Degree

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

Discover how earning a Bachelor of Science in Occupational Safety degree from EKU can give you the skills to ensure the safety of others.

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

Sources:

Futurism, “Amazon Now Has Machines to Automatically Box Up Orders”

International Federation of Robotics, “IFR Presents World Robotics Report 2020”

McKinsey & Company, “Industrial Robotics” 

Occupational Safety and Health Administration

RobotWorx, “Education, Training, and Awareness Are Mandatory for Industrial Robot Safety”

Safety+Health, “Robots in the Workplace”

Statista, “The Countries with the Highest Density of Robot Workers”