Sharing our workspace with robots is no longer a revolutionary concept. Fuelled by the promise of productivity gains, businesses across the UK are redefining processes and upgrading low-skill labour with forward-thinking AI solutions.

A recent PWC study predicted 1.2 million manufacturing roles will be replaced by robots within the next 15 years. And as the speed of automation accelerates, jobs may not be the only thing in jeopardy.  

Will the rise of machines bring a new wave of risk?

A brave new working world

Manufacturers are navigating an evolving landscape, one where real workers and robots must learn to co-exist, collaborate – and comply with a rewritten safety rule book. The blind spots were brought into shocking focus in 2015 when a German contractor at Volkswagen’s Baunatal production plant was grabbed and crushed to death by the stationary robot he was installing.

HSE research shows that, in the factory of the future, human nature is a significant hazard:  

“From some investigation reports it appears that deaths are often happening from trappings between a robot and another object. This is normally due to the robot stalling and not being able to be moved away from the trapped person manually. Another key issue appears to be human performance failure and risk-taking behaviour, and there is some evidence that human failure causes a high percentage of robot accidents. Unforeseen human behaviour may create risks that are difficult to assess in the workplace without the appropriate training and insight.”

It’s a balancing act for businesses. Under the right care and conditions, robots can safeguard workers’ health and wellbeing by taking on repetitive, undesirable or dangerous tasks, such as heavy lifting or handling hazardous materials. The challenge is to ensure interaction between humans and machines remains as risk free as possible.

Cutting-edge issues, common sense solutions

Currently, many robots occupy fixed workspaces surrounded by protective cages or light guards – protective measures to support safe operation. A high proportion of accidents, however, happen during ‘down time’ – when machinery is being set up, programmed, tested and repaired (possibly by untrained staff). The next generation of intelligent, free-roaming automatons ramp up the risk of human contact even further. Are businesses ready?

Protect yourself with expert tips on reducing robot-related risk:

  • Understand the dangers. Before introducing any element of automation, carry out an exhaustive risk assessment pinpointing potential areas of mechanical and human error. Extend your scope beyond common operating risks, such as entanglement and injury from moving parts, to cover concealed dangers associated with access, adjustment or maintenance protocols, workspace layout and machine proximity. The HSE’s hierarchy of control sets out your key risk management priorities – from redesigning tasks to eliminate hazards to introducing appropriate personal protective equipment (PPE). 
  • Create a safe system of work. Once hazards are identified, minimise risk by defining safe working methods for every task, whether fully automated or worker led. Considerations could include permit-to-work procedures, reduced speed settings, pressure pads to allow automatic shut down and range of movement indicators for robotic arms. Ensure safety from set-up stage by using authorised technicians to install and programme machinery and train in-house operators to approved standard.
  • Provide clear and frequent training. Deliver detailed instruction for every worker who comes into contact with automated equipment – from daily operators to ad hoc maintenance personnel. Cover off general dangers such as hair, gloves, jewellery and clothing being caught in machinery, as well as targeted training spanning mechanical failure, control faults and user access restrictions.
  • Keep pace with compliance requirements. Robotics is a rapidly developing field, with swiftly changing safety regulations. While regular equipment checks are critical, routine wear and tear inspections won’t cut it. Risk reduction measures should safeguard against user error, machinery failure, collisions, inadequate PPE and more. Stay on the sharp end of compliance requirements, respond quickly to updates with precise modifications and training – and be prepared to justify your automation safety strategy to the HSE.

There’s no question that robots are changing the face of manufacturing, but – for most organisations – fully integrated workplaces are still some way off. A discussion paper from the European Agency for Safety and Health at Work advises businesses to ready themselves with the “development of new approaches and standards to guarantee the safety of the ‘man-robot merger’”. The report continues:

“Despite these advances, there are certain skills for which humans will continue to be better suited than machines for some time to come and the question is how to achieve the best combination of human and robot skills. The advantages of robotics include heavy-duty jobs with precision and repeatability, whereas the advantages of humans include creativity, decision-making, flexibility and adaptability.”

Let’s use those singularly human talents to ensure safety for our workers for today and tomorrow. 

For more information on automation safety within your business, speak to your Southalls consultant.