By Richard Mawson, sales manager UK and Ireland at OnRobot
Since the mid-twentieth century, robots have been implemented by businesses worldwide to enhance efficiency and multiply productivity levels.
However, while the introduction of robotic equipment in industrial contexts undoubtedly helped organisations increase their profits and revenues, it also transformed the working environments.
Safety concerns inevitably arose.
Though incredibly beneficial to the business, the first generation of robots were never designed to operate in close proximity to humans due to their size and potency.
That’s why many companies resorted to confining robots in a dedicated space of the factory, where human workers simply weren’t allowed.
Things have changed. The annual World Robotics report released last week by the International Federation of Robotics revealed that collaborative robots are taking the automation sector by storm and have shown an installation increase of 23 per cent.
A robot model intended for human collaboration naturally challenges traditional safety measures which involve segregation and call for a new approach to creating secure automated work environments.
Businesses must cease to consider solely what hazards robots may introduce in the workplace, and open their minds to what dangers they can in fact mitigate by taking over certain unsafe tasks usually assigned to humans.
Not that kind of robot
There are some substantial differences which set robots and cobots apart and notably affect the automated workplace safety conversation.
Collaborative robots are essentially robotic arms, infinitely nimbler than traditional robots.
Designed for human interaction, their sensors allow them to perceive the presence of other objects in the vicinity and help them avoid these accordingly.
This couldn’t be more different from the originary industrial automated machines – large, heavy and unaware of their surroundings.
It’s apparent that new-generation technologies have left behind the big scary robots of the past and evolved into intelligent, worker-friendly allies.
Experts believe that the businesses of the future will thrive thanks to a creative combination of technology and human touch.
This has spurred the creation and increased popularity of collaborative robots, which not only allowed workers to learn new skills and focus on more high-value tasks than mindless carrying and assembling, but also made working alongside them immensely safer.
A change in perspective
Workplace accidents happen. It is virtually impossible to create a workplace with zero hazards for employees.
This is perhaps even more true in factories and warehouses, where employees carry heavy loads back and forth, handle a range of disparate materials and interact with machines.
That’s why business owners and health and safety professionals must carefully analyse the most frequent situations which put workers in danger in order to manage them correctly.
The Health and Safety Executive reported last year that the most common type of fatal workplace injury in the UK is fall from a height. Only 9 per cent were caused by contact with moving machinery.
With regards to non-fatal injuries, the second most common cause is handling, lifting and carrying, accounting for 21 per cent, while moving machinery was only involved in 4 per cent.
It’s not difficult to imagine that carrying large boxes containing heavy items multiple times a day could lead to accidents or result in damage to muscles or bones, or that performing monotonous tasks such as manually assembling product after product can result in workers suffering in repetitive muscle strain.
It does, however, seem odd that robots are still perceived as the cause of safety issues in the workplace rather than embraced as a solution.
While factory work is dangerous due to its very nature, humans can be spared from completing hazardous jobs such as heavy lifting, working from elevated heights or handling harmful chemicals, if they are handed over to robots.
Cobots can take over activities like moulding or welding, where humans handle heated material, are exposed to metal fumes and to ultraviolet radiation, and risk of burns or eye damage.
They can also be deployed in research laboratories – where processes not only involve toxic materials, but also require monotonous gestures which demand consistency and precision – thereby preventing humans from suffering contamination and repetitive strain injuries.
Automation has the potential to revolutionise the way we live and work, improving the quality of our professional lives and propelling our economy to unprecedented prosperity.
Employee safety and job satisfaction are fundamental aspects of a thriving organisation and should be top priorities for business owners.
What’s important to understand is that these two statements are not necessarily conflicting demands which companies must learn to balance, rather two sides of a single movement towards embracing automation as an enabler of business success as well as worker safety.