As more industries, including warehousing, embrace the use of robots, concerns are growing about their safety – and it may surprise you to learn that there is nothing new about those concerns.
In 1987 OSHA issued Guidelines for Robotics Safety, stating: “With the burgeoning use of robots in industry, it is feared that without adequate guarding and personnel training, injury rates for employees working with robots may increase.”
Some safety experts believe OSHA’s current regulations are inadequate and need extensive updating. Last year the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health created a Center for Occupational Robotics Research to assess potential risks and develop guidance for safe interactions between humans and robots.
Attorneys for the law firm of Seyfarth Shaw point out that early robots mainly conducted pre-programmed tasks lacking the advanced computer intelligence that many now possess.
From their introduction, it was common for employees to be found within the robot’s work envelope while power was available to device’s moveable elements, the lawyers note.
“Now, some 30 years after their widespread appearance in the workplace, robotics and computer
automation have permeated nearly every industry, including manufacturing, warehousing, and even retail, potentially exposing additional workers to hazards. In Japan, some coffee shops now serve coffee utilizing robotic baristas,” the lawyers observe.
To help educate employers, OSHA created an online technical manual concerning the hazards associated with robotics and automated machinery.
In addition, the Robotics Industries Association offers a safety program for employers that covers everything from ANSI standards and technical reports to public and in-house safety training opportunities.
The OSHA technical manual groups robotic incidents into four categories: impact or collision accidents, unexpected movements, component malfunctions, and unpredicted program changes related to the robot’s arm or peripheral equipment that result in contact accidents.
The Seyfarth Shaw attorneys stress, “While OSHA does not have regulations specific to robots in the workplace, employers would be wise to conduct job hazard analyses and evaluate any existing or potential robotic equipment installation, to abate any hazards posed by these machines.”
OSHA says dangers you should look out for are:
Crushing and trapping accidents. Situations where worker’s limb or other body part can be trapped between a robot and other peripheral equipment, or the individual may be physically driven into and crushed by other peripheral equipment.
Mechanical part accidents. OSHA defines a mechanical accident as one that involves breakdown of the robot’s drive components, tooling or end-effector, peripheral equipment, or its power source.
Examples of mechanical failures include the release of parts, failure of gripper mechanism, or the failure of end-effector power tools, including grinding wheels, buffing wheels, deburring tools, power screwdrivers and nut runners.
Other kinds of accidents. This includes equipment that supplies robot power and control represents potential electrical and pressurized fluid hazards.
For example, ruptured hydraulic lines could create dangerous high-pressure cutting streams or whipping hose hazards. This category also covers environmental accidents from arc flash, metal spatter, dust, electromagnetic or radio-frequency interference, and equipment and power cables on the floor that can present tripping hazards.
Other sources of potential robotics hazards include human errors in programming, interfacing peripheral equipment, or connecting live input-output sensors to the robot or a peripheral device which can cause dangerous, unpredicted movement. Incorrect activation of the “teach pendant” or control panel is a frequently-found human error.
“The greatest problem, however, is operators’ familiarity and complacency with the robot’s redundant motions so that an individual places himself in a hazardous position within the robot’s ‘work envelope’ while programming the robot or performing maintenance on it,” OSHA warns.
Another problem is unauthorized access by employees who may not be familiar with safeguards in place or their activation status.
Pneumatic, hydraulic or electrical power sources with malfunctioning control or transmission elements in power systems also can disrupt electrical signals to control or power-supply lines.