Safety is a leading concern when it comes to implementing robotics. Most robots can enhance workplace safety, but at the same time, they may also make way for new hazards, especially concerning user error. As industrial automation is becoming more prevalent, these considerations tend to become more noticeable, particularly with regard to OSHA (Occupational Safety and Health Administration) standards.
For years, robots have been a standard part of the industrial labor workforce. Since 2010, new industrial robot installations have not dipped below 150,000, and several processes have been automated for many decades. Given how prevalent robots are, businesses can reasonably expect a significant number of rules and regulations governing their safety. In this guide, let's look at how OSHA sees robot safety and how your organization can abide by these safety guidelines.
Robotics Safety in the Workplace
Robotics is becoming increasingly prevalent in the workplace. According to the Robotic Industries Association (RIA), a trade union that endorses automation and robotics, what was once a staple for a long time in the automotive industry, have now gradually moved into several other sectors like rubber and plastic, food and consumer goods, electronics and life sciences.
For instance, the World Robotics Industrial Robots report of the International Federation of Robotics (IFR) found that just about 293,000 industrial robots were working in factories throughout the United States in 2020. The report found that new robotics sales were going strong and stood on par with the 33,000 units that were shipped in 2019.
According to the IFR, robot density, which is a measurement of the number of robots for every 10,000 employees in an industry, was 229 in the U.S in 2019. This number is 28% more than China’s robot density (which is 187 robots for every 10,000 workers) but only a fraction of what it is in South Korea (855 robots for every 10,000 workers).
When humans work collaboratively with machines, human safety is of the utmost importance. Occupational safety experts must be well aware of the dangers and safety protocols needed to ensure the safety of all workers.
Getting a bachelor’s degree in work-related safety can be a great step towards any of several occupational safety and health careers, including becoming a leader in a workplace setting that uses robotics.
What Are Robots in the Workplace?
According to U.S Department of Labor OSHA, industrial robots are programmable multifunctional automatic devices used to move tools, parts, materials, or specialized devices via varying programmed motions to carry out several tasks. Robots carry out hazardous, unsafe, unpleasant, and highly repetitive tasks.
Examples of robots in the workplace include welding robots, automotive industry robots, industrial floor scrubbers, aircraft inspection robots, and order assembly robots (like those used by retailers like Amazon). Workplace robots call for a more efficient and productive way of managing costs and boosting overall productivity.
As per the Health+Safety magazine, some robots are more likely to be observed in professional environments, including:
- Professional service robot: This robot carries our commercial tasks outside of industrial applications, such as delivery, surgery, cleaning, or firefighting.
- Industrial robot: This is an automatically controlled and programmable robot. It can be either mobile or fixed and is typically used in applications like assembly and packaging, manufacturing, and inspection.
- Collaborative robot (Cobot): This highly complex robot is specially designed to carry out tasks with humans.
- Mobile robots: This robot can travel under its own control, for instance, in military settings or in a warehouse. It can be guided or autonomous.
Mishaps with robots mostly tend to occur when the employees are not where they usually are, typically performing the required testing, maintenance, or programming. Robots are seldom sophisticated enough to know when a person is close by.
The best safety approach is staying away from any robot conducting scheduled tasks or is in motion, as per the director of standards development of the RIA, Carole Franklin. To be exposed to a robot’s hazards, a person has to approach them. So far, we've only been dealing with robots that are fixed in place.
OSHA Lacks Robot-Specific Guidance
Despite how long robots have existed and been operational in the workplace, OSHA does not have any particular standards set for robotics. This lack of safety guidelines for manufacturers might seem strange, but it is probably due to a lack of need.
While industrial robots are quite noticeable, serious robotic-related incidents still stand at a minimum and are relatively rare. At the most, there are just 45 cases of robot-related accidents in the records of the agency , which go back to 1984. Without a significant record proving the dangers of robotics, there is little need to implement specific standards over robots.
Former additions to OSHA rules and regulations have led to many significant workplace safety occurrences. For instance, one of the most critical sets of regulation additions of OSHA followed a series of chemical-related disasters that killed hundreds and thousands of workers.
No such safety event has ever taken place with robots. Another significant reason why OSHA has a lack of robot-specific regulations is that they might be redundant. Many current machine guidelines can also apply to industrial robots.
Some Guidelines That Apply To Robots
OSHA brings three primary standards to light that are related to robotics: 1910 Subpart O, 1910 Subpart S, and 1910 Subpart J. These guidelines cover the machine guarding and machinery, all sorts of electrical work practices, and fundamental environmental controls, respectively.
An OSHA inspector will probably refer to these regulations when examining the robotic installations of a facility. These guidelines mainly apply to how workers engage and interact with robots, as most injuries or accidents are caused on behalf of user error.
For instance, facilities should employ Lockout/Tagout (LOTO) systems with robots, ensuring they shut down entirely when not being used. In 2016, a Nissan plant had to pay a fine of $12,675 for not providing enough LOTO training for a robot.
Robotic manufacturers should also follow the current OSHA standards for proper programming. For example, the programmable logic controllers (PLCs) of robots must confine their movement when not doing pre-programmed tasks.
Like with any workplace equipment, employers must perform a risk valuation when designing a robotic system, sharing the potential dangers to workers.
Despite not having robot-specific regulations, OSHA underlines some of the most prevalent robot risks. These include trapping or crushing incidents, unexpected changes in the program, and mechanical failures.
Other Robot Safety Recommendations
OSHA might not have a robot-specific guide for manufacturers, but there are several other safety standards that do. These regulations give you a national consensus regarding robot safety checklists that can direct organizations that are unsure of how to approach complaint robot installations.
In 1984, the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued recommendations regarding robot safety . Although these guidelines are open-ended, they still offer you a starting point for creating and adopting robots' safety.
The ANSI (American National Standards Institute) features Section R15.06-2012 , especially regarding robotic safety requirements. These include things such as how to design safeguards, identify risks, operate robots, and test robot safety. These regulations also overlap with ISO's (International Organization for Standardization) robot standards.
Despite no specific OSHA robot safety guidance, the agency will still likely turn to these guidelines. Companies can guarantee robotic safety compliance by turning to the other standards for reference and help.
Additional Regulations May Come
While OSHA’s viewpoint on robotics does not have sufficient specificity now, things can change. As robots grow and become more prevalent in diverse workplaces, the chances of a prominent safety event also increase. A string of serious incidents may likely encourage OSHA to publish new guidance.
Even without an apparent safety incident, OSHA might choose to implement robot-specific guidance as the robotics technology progresses. While current machinery regulations might be ample for today’s robots, this might not be the case for long.
As robots become more complex and manage more complex tasks, they can call for additional regulations that aren’t covered by the existing standards. Organizations with high automation levels must pay attention to creating standards to guarantee continuous compliance. After all, what makes up for safe operations today might not do so tomorrow.
Stay Compliant When Adopting Robotics
Robots have what it takes to make industrial workplaces far more safe. To accomplish these safety perks and utilize their investment to the maximum, facilities should ensure they meet all the necessary standards when adopting them.
Even though OSHA might not have any particular guidelines for robotics, firms can still be met with substantial fines for the wrong implementation. Robotics is still a growing field. Hence, the safety regulations will keep growing as technology progresses. Staying up-to-date about these developments is crucial to the effective and safe use of robots in the workplace.
So far, there are only a few robotics safety rules. While OSHA still has to issue specific standards for the robotics industry, those who operate close to industrial robots are eligible for particular protections and rights. Here are the following examples of worker protections offered by OSHA, including those who work with industrial robots:
- Receiving training and information about workplace risks and hazard prevention.
- Working in a setting that’s free of severe and harmful risks.
- Permission to file confidential complaints with OSHA to inspect their facilities and workplace.
- Retaining the ability to officially report an accident/injury or point out any discovered safety and health concerns with fear of vengeance.
- Asking OSHA to scrutinize their workplace if a severe danger exists and if their workers aren’t following the OSHA guidelines.
- Being able to go through the records of injuries or accidents on the job.
Robotics Safety Training
Firms using robotic automation should always prioritize robotics safety training and make it their utmost concern. Workers should be taught they can’t be complacent regarding the dangers of automation. For instance, managers should clearly mark the workspaces and educate workers about which floor spaces they should avoid when robots are working.
In addition, robot operators should be trained on when and how to safely get involved if a robot stops or malfunctions during work. If a firm uses several robots, managers must conduct separate training for each one.
Performing a comprehensive risk assessment is the ultimate way to maintain a safe and secure work environment, particularly more so when adding new automated processes. Thanks to the RIA, R15.06-2013 standard, the correct risk assessments aren’t just a best practice anymore. Instead, they are compulsory.
Hand-Guided Teaching Safety Standards
ISO 10218 and ISO/TS 15066 provide guidance and standards for cobot teaching functionality. Many cobots employ intuitive hand-guiding mechanisms for teaching novel tasks without needing to overtly program the robotic arm’s movements. Hand-guiding mode oversees speed and force to ensure that the teaching process complies with safety principles.
Enabling hand guiding
Before operators enter the workspace of robots for teaching, the robot should be stopped even if its speed and force-limiting functionality are activated. Or else, a protective halt must be performed upon the operator’s detection via a safety device such as an area scanner.
Unlike high-speed robots, operators can start the teaching mode with a simple button, trigger, or mode selection as long as the speed monitoring and safety forces are active. If not, a 3-position safety enable is needed. Safety standards need the teaching mode transition to be thoughtful, prevent additional risks, and avoid unpredicted motion.
Ensuring safe teaching
As the operator is in charge of the movement of the robot, they must be aware of the safety concerns and surrounding equipment at all times. It’s likely to coerce limits in motion, such as space and soft-axis limitations, to keep the operator safe and protected.
Enabling safe operation
The operator should vacate the guarded space. This can be located via safety sensors or further operator verification. Intentional mode selection should be provided to re-enable the robot for operation.
Required Safety Measures To Create a Collaborative Workspace
Cobots carry out automated tasks around other machinery that could cause accidents or harm workers. The area in which cobots operate, including tooling or additional machinery, is known as the collaborative workspace.
As described by ISO 10218/ANSI RIA 15.06, collaborative space is the space within the guarded area where the human and robot can carry out tasks at the same time during production operations.
Likewise, TS 15066 describes it as the operation space where the robot systems can carry out tasks simultaneously with human operators during protection. It’s crucial to list and map out all the extra machinery in the complete collaborative automation project.
Manufacturers must evaluate each device for potential risks and safety sensors to avoid machine damage and human harm. Additionally, the collaborative workspace must be marked clearly. Here are some examples of non collaborative safety-rated machinery that can be part of the workspace needing safety devices:
- Material handling
Safety devices are relatively easy to integrate into a collaborative robotic setting. Here are some solutions on how to protect the collaborative workspace and which collaborative robot safety standards you should abide by.
Open area safety guarding solutions
Safety mats and area scanners are the most prevalent safeguarding for cobots. They are the simplest items to combine with applications with low threats and few equipment pieces.
Limited area/gated safety guarding solutions
Safety switches and safety light curtains are used for applications with high-speed enablement or hazards for more significant productivity.
Active hazards safety guarding solutions
When hazards are present where an operation could cause danger, operators can enable the “deadman” switch. This is a switch that instantly reverts back to its original “off” position in case the user is unable to exert pressure.
Optimizing safety in collaborative operation
Manufacturers need to validate their collaborative robot applications for safety across all operations. Each application is distinct. However, manufacturers can follow a few guidelines while evaluating the safety of a robot while conducting a given task together with a human operator. Even if the robot isn't moving, drive and power risks might still be present.
Safe robot enabled
Whether starting up the robot or getting back to normal from an emergency stop, there should be a deliberate act to enable the robot that makes sure the operators are protected, and no hazards are present.
For instance, when an operator triggers an e-stop, the robot shouldn’t perform an automatic re-enable. Instead, it should call for input from a second operator verification action.
Safe hand guiding
During the safety and design setup, manufacturers should make sure that the hand-guiding can only occur in these cases:
- The robot has stopped.
- Force and speed monitoring are active.
- Intentional mode selection has occurred.
If hand-guiding activation takes place without a safety input or a stop command, this must start a safety stop and fault.
Enabling the cobot’s run or automatic operation should be a global mode selection by the operator that calls for all safety conditions and devices to be authenticated for operation. Operators should be safeguarded from dangers on the end-of-arm tooling before enabling operation.
Manufacturers need to have a safety valuation service group assess all nearby areas and machines and conduct a safety remediation service if required. Safety service groups will conduct an on-site inspection to evaluate the equipment’s safety, verify safety parameter settings, confirm certifications, and document that safety validation has been completed.
The designers of material handling, automated machine tooling, and assembly applications should take into consideration how robots can interact with operators, what characteristics of the end-of-arm tool can pose a threat to sharp edges, high heat, other hazards, and what aspects of the workplace surroundings can lead to entrapment or clamping.
If you conduct a risk assessment thoroughly and implement the required safety measures, successful efficiency gains of an application and better performance can be ensured.