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Use of robots amps up workplace safety risks


Robots are assisting humans in the manufacturing and other sectors, but such interactions can create serious workplace safety challenges.

Only 6% of business leaders said they are addressing the use of robotics and only 9% are looking at how humans interact with robots, according to a survey of 68 senior safety leaders by Marsh Risk Consulting published in September 2018.

“The difficulty with that is we haven’t figured out all the ways to make sure that the language controls that’s being programmed into those robots are fail safe,” Laurence Pearlman, Chicago-based senior vice president for Marsh Risk Consulting’s workforce strategies practice, said at the Risk & Insurance Management Society Inc.’s annual conference in Boston on Wednesday.

In a 2015 incident, a woman was killed after being hit on the head by a robot at a Michigan vehicle assembly facility.

“They thought it was safe,” he said. “Something went horribly wrong. How do we make sure that the design of robotics actually is as safe as we think it is? There are a whole bunch of risks around that – not recognizing the presence (of a human), there’s unanticipated movement of equipment, the lockouts don’t work.”

When office furniture manufacturer Steelcase Inc. in Grand Rapids, Michigan, first started using robots in its welding operations in the 2000s, they were “completely isolated from any type of human interaction,” said Timothy Martin, global health and safety manager.

In 2010s, the company began using collaborative robots. “You can program and move this collaborative robot in less than five to 10 minutes and that was a huge movement for us because a significant barrier was having a robot that takes eight to 10 hours to program,” he said. “You couldn’t really have it change different parts frequently. It had to be pretty repetitive. Now with these collaborative robots, we can significantly move them around on wheels. We can have them working right next to an operator and we don’t have to have all this IT tech support to make them work.”

The next evolution will be in the use of autonomous robots in the 2020s, which is a “mind-blowing next level of evolution where we can take a full-scale robot, teach it how to work around the machine in less than five minutes and then they can repeat that in real time with the 5G network,” Mr. Martin said.

Steelcase is also using robotics to address another workplace safety challenge: workplace violence.

“As a global corporation, it wasn’t a matter of if, it was a matter of when and how fast we responded,” Mr. Martin said. “We realized that by the time we had a policy in place, it was already out of date and by the time you looked at the policy, you were already too slow to respond to it.”

The company has started to pilot a robotic protection services officer that “can roam the area,” he said. “It has the technology to be able to detect if somebody has a knife or gun on them. It can go up to them and ask them to display their badge and live stream them to our control center and that control center can access any of these robots and interact with you in real time to observe any type of threat.” 

Only 9% of businesses are focusing on workplace violence prevention and management, including addressing mental health, according to the Marsh survey.

“Whenever you do the diagnostic (of an incident), there were signs,” Mr. Pearlman said. “This was posted on social media. This was an observation that a co-worker had.”

Steelcase officials were “on the fence” about conducting active shooter-type drills “because there’s been mixed reviews,” Mr. Martin said. “You can create undue panic by doing it or you can make people think versus react. We’re probably going to do it in the next six months. The big debate is do you do it uncontrolled and have people have fear or do you do in control and let people work through the process and I think the second is what we’re going to do first because the other way – we’ve just heard too many horror stories.”




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