NIOSH Report: Working Safely with Robots

Birth DefectsA German newspaper (Hessische/Niedersächsische Allgemeine, HNA) reported that a worker, an employee of a third-party contractor, was killed while installing an industrial robot at a Volkswagen assembly line on June 30, 2015 in Baunatal, Germany.

The robot gripped and pressed him up against a metal plate, crushing his chest. Despite efforts to revive him, the worker later died at a hospital. It is unclear whether this fatality was caused by engineering error or human error.

This case and others of workplace incidents involving industrial robots suggest that additional safety measures for worker interactions with industrial robots are necessary.

A recently published paper by NIOSH (National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health) describes the increasing complexity of robots and proposes a number of recommendations for protecting workers interacting with robotic workers.

The paper identifies three categories of robots: (1) industrial robots; (2) professional and personal service robots; and (3) collaborative robots. The initial wave of industrial robots were introduced in the 1970s when they began to be used in the manufacturing sector for assembling automobiles.

The second robot wave took off at the turn of the 21st century with the introduction of service robots. It was facilitated by the increasing autonomy and sensory capabilities of robots coupled with decreasing cost and size of microprocessor controllers. With the availability of relatively inexpensive collaborative robots capable of working in direct contact with people, we are now entering the third robot wave where robotic workers operate alongside human workers and symbiotic workers, i.e., human workers equipped with performance-enhancing robotic devices such as robotic exoskeletons and other capacity-enhancing prostheses.

A number of guidance documents and international standards deal with workplace safety around industrial robots. However, continuing incidents resulting in harm and death to workers indicate that additional measures such as additional redundancies in safety measures, additional training and improvements in overall safety culture are necessary.

NIOSH recommended the following measures for occupational robotics: (1) occupational safety and health professionals should be directly involved in the development of international standards aimed at ensuring safety of workplaces with human and robot workers; (2) workplace safety standards for maintenance, operation, and interaction with human workers, of professional, personal service and collaborative (including managerial) robots should be developed; (3) proactive approaches for establishing risk profiles of robotic workplaces should be developed; and (4) redundant safety measures should be developed and operationalized to protect human workers while performing maintenance tasks on robot workers.

NIOSH, as the sole U.S. government agency dedicated to conduct research on occupational safety and health and with a history of robotic safety research, is well poised to initiate a program assessing potential risks of robot workers, and developing guidance for safe interactions between human and robot.