Works of fiction often portray robots working alongside humans in a sometimes harmonious and other times not so harmonious way. In the real world, industrial robots have been a major contributor to the American workplace for years.
According to the Robotics Industries Association (RIA), more than 250,000 such robots had been installed in the U.S. as of 2017. These sophisticated machines bear little resemblance to what we read about in science fiction books. Modern robots in the workplace often take the form of powerful, automated arms that perform demanding, repetitive tasks such as welding, assembly or painting.
Recently, advances in robotics have allowed for more diversity in contemporary robotic systems in the workplace across America. Now we see, in addition to the traditional, industrial robots, there are professional service robots and collaborative robots that work next to workers. There also are mobile autonomous robots that are effective in many enterprises and industries. These new types of robots open new worlds of possibilities for workplace productivity. But they also may make ensuring worker safety on the job more complex and difficult.
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Robot Roles in the Modern Workplace
Industrial robots have long been used for tasks that human workers find dangerous, dull and dirty. When used in that way, robots offer substantial safety benefits for workers. Robots can be vital in preventing injuries and negative health effects from working in dangerous conditions. For example, it is possible for robots to be used for repetitive tasks, such as poultry processing, where cuts, repetitive and traumatic injuries are common.
New-generation robots will still be able to perform such tasks, but they will also be able to work side by side with humans and create the possibility of more applications. A worker may be able to ‘teach’ the robot and show it how to complete a desired motion, which the robot can repeat.
Safety Standards Evolving
In the past, industrial robots were designed to work a good distance from workers to increase worker safety. Robots can pose many safety hazards and often do not have the sensory ability to detect humans in the vicinity. In fact, after the death of a die cast operator in 1984 who was crushed between a hydraulic robot and a steel pole, NIOSH released a set of safety strategies that mostly involved keeping workers at a healthy distance from robots.
There have more recently been reports of worker deaths involving robots, including one U.S. fatality in 2013, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor.
But now that new industrial robots are being created where the machines are intended to be collaborative with humans, won’t there be a greater risk for injury? That is why RIA has been closely working with the American National Standards Institute and the International Organization for Standardization to keep pace with evolving workplace safety realities. As more collaborative robots are introduced into industrial settings and working next to humans, it will be very important to continue to develop workplace safety standards to ensure that all workers are kept safe in this more robotic and futuristic workplace.
Otherwise, as more advanced and collaborative robots work closely with humans, we could see a spike in workplace injuries, which is the last thing any of us want to see.