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Robot safety works both ways

Posted On: Feb. 3, 2019 12:00 AM CST

The National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health sees potential for robots to address some safety risks encountered by employees, but the agency has tracked several dozen robot-related workplace fatalities in the United States.

NIOSH researchers reported 61 robot-related workplace deaths between 1992 and 2015. While updated statistics are not currently available, the agency is aware of two robot-related incidents in Washington state last year, said Hongwei Hsiao, chief of the protective technology branch at NIOSH and co-director of the Center for Occupational Robotics and Research in Morgantown, West Virginia. One incident related to an autonomous forklift that struck workers who were creating a piece of plastic that interfered with the operation of the robot, while another case involved remote control demolition machines, also known as demolition robots, Mr. Hsiao said.

The NIOSH fatality and injury investigation team is “working closely with Washington state to understand the incidents and come up with recommendations to prevent similar incidents,” he said.

But with advancements in robotics technology and capabilities, NIOSH sees “good potential” for robots to address workplace safety risks and injuries such as the reduction of repetitive, tiring and dangerous tasks that workers used to perform, often causing lower back pain or pain in upper extremities, said Mr. Hsiao.

He said “we see a need to address the safety of today’s workers, who use, wear and work nearby robots. This is in particular true if workers are unfamiliar with the systems or risks they may encounter with the robots, when medical issues or social risk issues arise.”

In 2017, NIOSH launched the research center to assess the potential benefits and risks of robot workers and develop guidance for safe interactions between humans and robots.

There have been very few fatalities or major accidents involving robots although “even one is too many from our standpoint,” said Jeff Burnstein, president of the Ann Arbor, Michigan-based Robotics Industries Association.

Part of the reason why industrial robots have been safe is because employers are adhering to the voluntary safety standards, he said. The association developed the first American national robot safety standard in 1986, a standard that now incorporates American National Standards Institute and International Organization for Standardization standards.

A new standard that addresses the risks associated with mobile robots is being developed and should be ready by the end of 2019 or early 2020, and the association has just launched a strategic initiative to determine what safety concerns exist related to artificial intelligence, said Mr. Burnstein.