Safely Incorporating Advancing Robotics Technologies into your Workplace
Industrial robots have long been fixtures in manufacturing, but sweeping advances in technology over the last two decades have given robotics a platform and presence across all sectors that has changed the landscape of the workplace forever, bolstering productivity in a way that was previously unimaginable – and certainly unattainable. With such a swift move to center stage, workplace robots have notoriously been met with apprehension, hesitation, and even insecurity, as the pace of their introduction and evolution threatened to outrun safety standard updates and employees feared job displacement.1 Elevated injury risk due to working alongside robots also emerged as a growing concern for employees, though there is much data to show that robots have been responsible for just a sliver of work-related injuries and fatalities in recent years.2 In fact, many of the modern industrial robots produced today are actually designed to prevent workplace injury.3
Still, in the face of these worries, it is critical that employers understand how to best navigate the addition and ongoing use of robots in their workplace, taking into consideration employee safety, morale, trust, and overall well-being.
Robots remove (not replace); cobots collaborate
With the advent of more versatile and intelligent robots, it was inevitable that employees would begin questioning whether their jobs were in jeopardy. In some cases, robots are indeed meant to work in place of a human employee, but this is often to remove the employee from a hazardous environment and reduce risk of injury. A widely accepted application for traditional robots is to perform tasks that would be considered by humans to fall under the “four Ds,” which are Dangerous, Dirty, Dull, and Dear (costly).4 Robotic cattle drivers, for example, keep human workers out of harm’s way. The employee is still needed to operate the robot – from a safe distance – and oversee the herding process, however.5 By enhancing employee safety without eliminating the employee’s role, this is a win-win – and employees across many industries can rest assured that this trend looks to be going nowhere but up.
Cobots are designed to directly interact with human employees, with their primary purpose being to optimize processes and productivity through collaboration, rather than act as a substitute for the human employee altogether. As Kathleen Walch, managing partner & principal analyst at AI-focused research and advisory firm Cognilytica, puts it, “Indeed, if the old robotics focused on the four Ds, then you can think that cobots focus on efficiency, effectiveness, and enhancement.”6 Many cobots are programmed through human teaching. The human employee manually manipulates the robotic hardware to perform the task correctly, and the robot “memorizes” the movements, later replicating the human’s example – another comforting case for employees concerned about job displacement.
While optimization may be thought of as central to cobot integration, employee safety is an equally important consideration for employers who adopt cobot use in the workplace. As part of a $300 million initiative to improve employee safety and overall working conditions, Amazon founder Jeff Bezos recently deployed robots and cobots specifically designed to prevent employee injuries like repetitive use injuries.7 Under the initiative, Bezos hopes to reduce employee injuries by 50 percent in the next three years, illustrating just one example of the proactive commitment employers everywhere are taking toward elevating employees’ safety – not replacing them – with robots. For its part, Amazon points out that since introducing robots into its facilities in 2012, the organization has added more than one million jobs globally.8
Safety considerations for employees working alongside robots
Although the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) does not currently have formal standards regarding the use of robots in the workplace, it does provide important information concerning hazard recognition, hazard evaluation, and hazard solutions, which can be found here. Eight primary robot application hazards are recognized by OSHA, including:
- Impact, collision, or other “struck-by/caught-between” hazards
- Crushing and trapping hazards
- Struck-by projectiles hazards
- Electrical hazards
- Hydraulic hazards
- Pneumatic hazards
- Slipping, tripping, and falling hazards
- Environmental hazards
Studies have shown that the majority of robot-related injuries in the workplace occur during the assembly, installation, testing, or maintenance of a robot – not under normal operating circumstances.9 With this in mind, extra precautions should be taken during these activities.
OSHA also recognizes eight common sources of robot application hazards, which include:
- Human error
- Control errors
- Unauthorized access
- Mechanical failures
- Time pressure
- Environmental sources
- Power system failures or malfunctions
- Improper assembly and installation
According to OSHA, “[…] some or all [of these] can be addressed by the proper design, testing, integration, operation, and maintenance of the robot and the robot application.”(9) Education and training are an integral part of workplace injury prevention in general, and preventing robot-related injuries is no different. Comprehensive and regular safety training courses should be undertaken by all employees who will be working alongside robots and cobots.10
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) are also taking an active role in monitoring and improving employee safety alongside robots, having established the Center for Occupational Robotics Research (CORR) in September 2017 under the broader Future of Work initiative. As part of CORR’s efforts, much research will be put toward the provision of “[…] scientific leadership to guide the development and use of occupational robots that enhance worker safety, health, and well-being.”11
It should be noted that, despite the increasing prevalence of robots in the workplace, OSHA injury data suggests that there have been less than 50 recorded incidents of injury or fatality related to robots since 1984.12
Programming acceptance in your workforce
Introducing new technology, policies, or procedures to your workforce should be strategically and thoughtfully approached. Again, safety and job security are likely to be hot topics among your employees as the addition of robots in your workplace is being discussed. Start by developing extensive training programs and safety protocols and educating your employees on the benefits of collaborative robots – which include protection from injury and burnout – to quell some of these concerns. Highlight the ways in which robots and cobots will ease pain points in an employee’s role, making their job less stressful, safer, and more enjoyable.
At Concentra®, we are committed to keeping your employees safe and healthy as your organization and technologies evolve. Should a workplace injury occur – whether related to a robot or not – having an occupational health partner like Concentra can help your employee return to work quickly, safely, and confidently.
- “A Robot May Not Injure a Worker: Working safely with robots,” by Vladimir Murashov, et. al. NIOSH Science Blog. November 20, 2015.
- Robotics: About the Center. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Last reviewed: December 7, 2020.
- “How Warehouse Robotics Reduce Worker Injuries,” by Kayla Matthews. EHS Today: Safety Technology. August 15, 2019.
- “The 4 Ds Of Robotization: Dull, Dirty, Dangerous And Dear,” by Bernard Marr. Forbes. October 16, 2017.
- Meet the robot that’s making cattle herding safer. Cargill. October 18, 2018.
- Collaborative and traditional industrial robots. International Federation of Robotics (IFR). World Robotics 2022; slide 14. October 2022.
- From Body Mechanics to Mindfulness, Amazon Launches Employee-Designed Health and Safety Program called WorkingWell Across U.S. Operations. Amazon. May 17, 2021.
- “New technologies to improve Amazon employee safety,” written by Amazon Staff. Amazon News: Innovation at Amazon. June 13, 2021.
- Industrial Robot Systems and Industrial Robot System Safety. Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA). OSHA Technical Manual (OTM) Section IV: Chapter 4. Accessed November 7, 2022.
- Preventing the Injury of Workers by Robots. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Last reviewed: July 6. 2014.
- Center for Occupational Robotics Research. The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH); Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Last reviewed: July 2, 2021.
- Accident Search Results: “robot.” United States Department of Labor; Occupational Safety and Health Administration.