As robotics advances, manufacturers must determine how to address new workplace safety risks. The only way to protect workers’ well-being is to bring operating standards up to date and address any safety system gaps.
Industrial robots fall into three broad categories — mobile, non-collaborative and collaborative robots (cobots). Although each type of industrial robot has a unique place in the manufacturing industry, their market shares are shifting.
Already, alternative industrial robots are taking over the manufacturing sector. While cobots’ global market value was $700 million in 2021, experts believe it will reach $1.99 billion by 2030. Since modern systems vastly differ from conventional ones, industry-standard safety measures may soon be outdated.
This change is further emphasized by the number of manufacturers looking to modernize. Experts predict legacy solutions will continue to be phased out in favor of more consolidated and evergreen solutions. Even though traditional industrial robots have been an industry staple for decades, times are changing.
While cobots and mobile robots are some of the most recent developments in industrial robotics, the field will undoubtedly continue advancing. Considering many safety standards only focus on typical stationary systems — and are decades old — management teams may soon find gaps in their practices and procedures.
Despite these hurdles, manufacturers will soon direct large portions of their budgets to modern robotics. While spending on system integration will total nearly $67 billion by 2025, investments in industrial robots alone will reach $24.4 billion in the same period. Management will have to quickly adjust to new standards to maintain worker safety.
Generally, robots increase workers’ overall well-being because they take over repetitive and exhausting tasks. In fact, for every 10% increase in robotic integrations per 1,000 workers, people report 10% fewer health complaints. However, manufacturing facilities will only see positive gains if they enforce proper safety procedures.
Improper programming, assembly, maintenance or operation can easily result in injuries or death. For example, an incorrectly installed robot arm might throw objects instead of stacking them. Collisions, unauthorized physical access and caught-in-between incidents are some of the most common workplace accidents.
Even if human error isn’t to blame, robots can still malfunction. For example, a power surge can result in shocks or fires. Alternatively, a faulty hydraulic line can easily break and whip around at high speeds while spraying toxic, flammable liquid. Electrical, mechanical and system failures aren’t uncommon.
Further, outsiders and staff can accidentally — or intentionally — tamper with a facility’s robots. For example, hackers who manage to access a vulnerable cobot can disrupt the assembly line or harm workers. Alternatively, electromagnetic or radio-frequency interference can cause unexpected movements, startups and shutdowns.
Facility and floor managers should implement multiple critical safety systems to protect workers from robot-related workplace accidents.
Warning signs are a manufacturing facility’s first line of defense against workplace injuries. They communicate where — and what — the hazard is so workers can protect themselves. Even if people are unfamiliar with the area or type of robot they’re working with, they’ll know which safety procedures to follow.
Even though the Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) admits personal protective equipment is the least effective tier in the hierarchy of controls, it’s still a proven strategy. Although steel-toed boots, goggles and heavy-duty gloves won’t protect against everything, they’ll minimize the damage.
Notably, hearing protection is often overlooked as a safety measure. Robotic systems can be deafening — even the relatively quiet ones can still damage a person’s hearing over time. Earplugs are essential for people working with cobots and around typical stationary robots.
Machine guards exist to protect workers when they work near robots. This fact is especially true during malfunctions since predicting erratic mechanical behavior is impossible. For example, a manipulator can easily extend past its standard operating space and strike someone if a metal cage doesn’t keep it contained.
Most robots — especially mobile industrial types — are dangerous to work next to. In fact, 62% of workplace accidents stem from workers going near them while they’re operating. Railings, chains and locked gates keep people from unintentionally wandering into unsafe areas, significantly lowering the risk of collision or caught-in-between incidents.
Often, workers have to access industrial robots directly to inspect or repair them. Lockout tagout procedures — multi-step processes to safely shut down equipment temporarily — are essential safety systems in these scenarios.
If someone goes to turn on a machine without realizing another person is repairing it, they could cause a caught in-between or electrical incident. Floor managers must enforce strict lockout tagout procedures to prevent amputations, shocks and fatalities.
As artificial intelligence grows in popularity, more manufacturing facilities use it to enhance safety. Like self-driving cars, AI-powered sensors can recognize and avoid humans. This safety system is ideal for mobile industrial robots and cobots.
If facility managers don’t have access to AI, they can use the Internet of Things (IoT) instead. They can integrate motion, pressure, proximity, light or infrared sensors into their robotics to mitigate many kinds of workplace accidents.
Arguably, an emergency stop button is the most crucial safety system a manufacturing facility can have. If a robot starts to malfunction or workers see a workplace accident in progress, they can hit it to immediately shut down the system. Although it’s usually a last resort, it’s highly effective.
On top of having the proper systems, management needs to reinforce the importance of safety procedures. Their authority and influence can help prevent workplace injuries.
Human error is one of the most significant sources of robot-related injuries and fatalities. In fact, it causes around 90% of workplace accidents on average. If floor managers pressure workers to move faster or take fewer breaks, they risk more incidents.
If someone gets scolded about being slow during maintenance, startup or shutdown, they’ll likely hurry through the process to avoid another lecture. If they miss even a single step, the chance of system malfunctions increases substantially.
Management should never rush workers when they’re dealing with dangerous machinery. Realistically, it’s far better to miss production goals than for someone to get injured. Minimizing time pressure increases the chance everyone follows protocol and remains safe.
Just because industrial robots have no widespread safety guidelines doesn’t mean management should ignore recommendations. Following the best practices — whether they’re required by law or not — protects workers. Other than OSHA, many other local and national organizations are setting robotic safety standards in manufacturing.
For example, the American National Standards Institute (ANSI) and the Robotic Industries Association (RIA) collaborated on new standards in 2021. ANSI/RIA R15.08 clarifies the difference between automated guided vehicles and autonomous mobile robots — an important distinction regarding safety.
Recently, many well-known organizations have released new safety standards or updated old versions to include modern robots. Management should look over these documents and consider implementing their recommendations.
Even the most advanced robots require routine maintenance. This is especially true for cobots since employees experience an increased injury risk just by working alongside them. Management should conduct regular inspections — while using proper lockout tagout procedures — to catch faults before they become issues.
Predictive maintenance uses historical and operational data to estimate when a robot will malfunction or break down. Facility managers can use AI and IoT sensors to tell when things need repairs. This way, they minimize downtime and catch hazards before workers get hurt.
A 2023 study on the relationship between robotic integration and workplace injuries between 1992 and 2017 found that 41 robot-related fatalities occurred over three decades. Researchers discovered stationary systems caused 83% of the incidents.
Although many professionals look at this statistic and think stationary industrial robots are the most dangerous, cobots and autonomous mobile robots can be just as deadly. Since they’re relatively new to the manufacturing industry, they have no widespread safety standards.
Providing up-to-date training for workers minimizes human error and helps them react in dangerous situations. Even if they panic during an emergency, they’ll remember what to do because of the pamphlets and practice sessions.
Staying up to date with new operating standards is essential for manufacturers as robotics advances. Management should install every necessary safety system and consider using administrative power to enforce strict guidelines.