During my time in manufacturing, one of my top priorities was the safety of all our employees, as well as any visiting customers, vendors, and contractors. Safety was not only important to me, but to everyone at the plant. From the safety department and management to the employees on the floor, everyone understood safety was a priority.
Most potential safety issues and hazards were relatively easy to deal with. Much of our equipment was designed with safety in mind. In addition, we followed established safety protocols from OSHA, the OEM, industry organizations, and material suppliers. When hazards were present, we implemented additional safeguarding and PPE (personal protective equipment) like safety glasses, shoes, gloves, and respirators. We held monthly safety training, performed accident investigations when things went wrong, and conducted root cause analysis as well as error proofing to prevent accidents from occurring in the first place.
As technology improved, so did safety. Robots took over potentially dangerous and repetitive jobs that could cause or contribute to musculoskeletal disorders resulting from awkward positioning or heavy lifting.
Robots are generally classified into the following categories:
Industrial robots can be reprogrammed, move in 3 or more axes, and be stationary or mobile mounted. This kind of robot is fully automated and needs to be caged, so humans cannot come in contact. Doors and access to this robot are guarded with interlocks, light curtains, laser beams, or pressure mats. If any of these systems are interrupted, the robot automatically shuts down to prevent injury. The robot generally needs to be restarted by a technician after the interruption.
Mobile robots, also known as automated guided vehicles (AGV), are often used to move parts from one place to another. These AGVs can follow in-floor or overhead guiding systems or be GPS controlled, programmed, or laser guided. They can have radar, bumpers, or other sensors that detect people or other obstacles, stopping the vehicle until the danger has passed. Most will restart after a predetermined time. Many of these AGVs have flashing lights or sounds to warn of their approach.
Collaborative robots, or Cobots, are relatively new to manufacturing. They are built and designed to work side-by-side with humans. They are smaller in physical size, move slower, and have lower payloads and less range of motion than their industrial robot big brothers. What makes them safe, so they don’t have to be caged? They have a variety of sensors and eyes built into them—sensing, feeling, or seeing potential human contact and stopping before that happens.
Professional service robots are robots that perform tasks outside an industrial automation application, like surgical procedures, cleaning, or other tasks.
No matter what type of robot is used, there are a few safety precautions you need to know.
During installation, work with your installer/integrator to ensure all safety precautions are intact and working before they leave.
Have your installer/integrator provide you with industry standard safety regulations and procedures.
Educate and train your staff, so they are aware of the robot and what can go wrong. Provide training to:
Maintenance and engineering staff.
Operators who work with the robots.
Employees who work in the area.
Ensure staff members understand safety features, like sensors and light curtains, and not to disable them.
Have a lockout/tagout (LOTO) procedure in place when working on robots.
Ensure your maintenance and engineering staff know how to safely work on robots (put them in teach mode or LOTO).
Check safeguards at regular maintenance intervals:
Warning and safety signs are in place.
Interlocks, sensors, and light curtains are in working condition.
Guarding is fully in place and locked to prevent accidental entry.
Safety bumpers and E-stops are in working condition.
Robots are designed to perform tasks repeatedly and accurately. You shouldn't be afraid of them, but it is important to keep personal safety in mind. As with any equipment, things can go wrong or fail. Ensure robots are in safe working order and provide quality training and protection to your employees.