Workers Health & Safety Centre

NIOSH examines safety of industrial robots

NIOSH examines safety of industrial robots
In a recently published paper, NIOSH describes the growing complexity of industrial robots and calls for safety standards to help regulate their use.
The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) paper explores three categories of robots:
(1)     industrial robots;
(2)     service robots; and
(3)     collaborative robots.
Industrial robots are defined as “automatically controlled, reprogrammable, multipurpose manipulators, which can be either fixed in place or mobile for use in industrial automation applications.” They are valued for their strength, endurance and precision and are widely used for welding, painting, assembling, moving, and testing. They were first introduced in the 1970s for auto assembly.
Most recently, a worker was killed while installing an industrial robot at a Volkswagen assembly plant in Baunatal, Germany. The robot gripped and pressed him up against a metal plate, crushing his chest. On the basis of this case and other similar workplace incidents involving industrial robots NIOSH says standards and additional safety measures for worker interactions with industrial robots are necessary.
Service robots are used for commercial tasks. Unlike industrial robots, service robots operate mostly outside industrial settings, used for instance in hospitals and homes. They are also used in unstructured and highly unpredictable environments such as disaster areas.
Service robots and workers often share the same workspace. The more complex environments in which service robots must operate can also result in dangerous situations for workers. Adverse environmental factors such as extreme temperature and poor sensing in difficult weather or lightning conditions can lead to an incorrect response by service robots and can be a source of injury. Yet despite these safety concerns, NIOSH again observes there are no related international standards to address worker safety.
Collaborative robots defined as “a robot designed for direct interaction with a person” can be either industrial or service robots. Collaborative robots are reported to combine the dexterity, flexibility and problem-solving skills of workers with the strength, endurance and precision of a mechanical robot. Their interaction with workers though also pose hazards to workers, says NIOSH.
Thus, NIOSH urges scientists, engineers, and policymakers to consider the potential safety hazards associated with all robotics and to develop appropriate standards and control measures to prevent harm to workers. To assist in this endeavour, NIOSH is initiating a program to help assess potential risks of robots and develop guidance for safe interactions between workers and robots. In their blog on the same topic they also invite readers to weigh in with specific, robot safety issues in need of further investigation.
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Want to read the NIOSH blog on industrial robots?
Want to read the NIOSH paper Working with Robots: Recommendations for the New Workplace?