NIOSH Tackles Safety of Workplace Robots

Robots are entering the 21st century workplace in greater numbers than ever before.

Technology has become dramatically more sophisticated over the last few decades, and conventional industrial robots working in isolation have evolved into smarter, collaborative robots that are working alongside or being worn by workers.
However, the benefits and risks of these new, and often complex,  interactions have not been fully investigated. To address potential problems, The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) announced the establishment of the Center for Occupational Robotics Research in October 2017. It is hoped that the Center will address hazards, and help to fill some of the gaps in current research into robotics and workplace safety.

The new Center’s first official partnership with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) and the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) was set up to allow collaboration between NIOSH researchers, OSHA staff, members of RIA, employers, and workers. The partnership comes at a crucial time, as robots begin to make their way into new work environments such as manufacturing, logistics, and agriculture. Members will jointly develop training, resources, and tools related to this emerging field.

“New robotics applications are fundamentally different from earlier applications in which robots were designed to operate in isolation from workers,” says NIOSH Director Dr. John Howard. “New classes of robots are being designed to work alongside, move among, and even be worn by human workers.”

These emerging robotics technologies hold both promise and concerns for worker safety, explains Dr. Howard.

“The promise is that robots will increasingly be used to do work that is dangerous for human workers…Concerns are based on the rapid growth of this technology, a lack of experience, and potential unforeseen hazards as these technologies are deployed in varied and uncontrolled work environments.”

OSHA's incident reports reveal that since 1984, there have been 38 robot-related accidents involving service robots. Of the 38 incidents, 27 resulted in death. NIOSH researchers have also identified 61 robot-related workplace deaths between 1992 and 2015. Studies show that many accidents occur during non-routine operating conditions, such as programming, maintenance, and setup.

“We suspect fatalities will increase over time because of the growing number of industrial robots being used by companies in the U.S., and from the introduction of collaborative and co-existing robots…into the work environment,” notes Dawn Castillo, M.P.H., director of NIOSH’s Division of Safety Research, and the Center’s program manager.

Working in partnership with academics, employers, and the government, NIOSH says the new Center will establish risk profiles of robotic workplaces, and conduct research to improve the safety and well-being of humans working with robots and robotic technologies. It will also support the development of safety standards and develop guidelines to reduce injury.

OSHA will be taking safety standards in environments where humans and robots work together very seriously, as will the engineers designing these robots. Collaborative robots will use sensors and 3D cameras to safely interact with humans, as well as brakes, fail safes, and lightweight manipulator arms (which reduce the risk of serious injury).

“With new robotics technologies beginning to take off, we are at a critical juncture” notes Dr. Howard. “It is important to proactively address worker safety and well-being now so that the promise of this technology for increased worker safety is realized.”

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