Introduction to Robot Safety Standards
Robots have captured the human imagination for decades, if not centuries. Today, they are far more than the subject of science fiction novels and movies. Industrial robots have become a common sight in state-of-the-art manufacturing plants, and their capabilities are starting to evolve into other areas of our daily lives.
Personal care robots and collaborative robot systems are only two examples of robotic systems that are seeing significant growth right now. But what are the implications for safety requirements, including occupational safety and ethical risks? Here is a detailed assessment.
Table of contents
- Introduction to Robot Safety Standards
- What are Robot Safety Standards?
- Why Are Robot Safety Standards Important?
- OSHA and Standards Compliance
- ANSI Robot Safety Standards
- Hazard Recognition
- Evolving Safety Standards
- Building Safety into the System
- Types of Robots and Cobots
- Collaborative Robotics
- Gaining Human Co-workers’ Trust
What are Robot Safety Standards?
Before we consider the implications of robot safety in industrial settings and other surroundings, we need to clarify what robot safety standards are. According to automate.org, robot safety standards are a set of guidelines for robot specifications that allow for safe operations. Anyone involved in manufacturing, selling, or using robots has to follow these guidelines to build a safe system.
In most cases, several industry bodies define safety standards. Some of those standards may be binding internationally, whereas others only apply to certain countries or specific industries. Internationally binding robot safety standards may be harder to agree on. However, they are essential for the development and growth of the industry.
In the European Union, the so-called machinery directive harmonizes health- and safety-related requirements for robots between all member states. The machinery directive also removes trade restrictions, allowing the industry to grow.
Why Are Robot Safety Standards Important?
International robot safety standards are a necessity for the growth of the robotics market. Effective international standards unify the guidelines of individual countries and industries, making it easier to streamline manufacturing and usage. In short, international standards allow the robotics industry as a whole to grow and stabilize the market for these devices.
Sales across borders become easier to conduct, and manufacturing becomes more cost-effective if there is less need for customization. Whilst the need for robot safety standards is obvious, agreeing on those standards is not that simple. The industry is developing fast, creating the risk of today’s standards becoming obsolete tomorrow.
In addition, as the industry is developing, considering industrial robot safety is no longer enough. Safety requirements also include ethical components. They relate to the impact on persons that robots may have, and the standards also have to consider the effect of artificial intelligence (AI) technology on the workplace.
Staying with industrial robotics for the moment, this field is changing, too. Where early robots and humans used to work mostly separately just a few years ago, we are now witnessing growing human-machine interaction. No doubt this will influence the development of robot safety standards.
In the United States, several organizations are actively involved in the creation of standards that will be applicable not only nationwide but also outside of our borders. Two of the main bodies involved in this process are the Occupational Health and Safety Administration (OSHA) and the American National Standards Institute (ANSI).
Robot Safety Standards – Cobots
OSHA and Standards Compliance
OSHA defines robotic technologies largely in the context of industrial robots and their implications for occupational safety. According to the organization, industrial robots are programmable mechanical devices that move materials, tools, or other devices. They are mainly used to perform tasks considered to be unsafe for human workers, repetitive, or simply unpleasant.
Whilst the introduction of robots has transformed manufacturing processes, it has also given rise to potentially hazardous situations. OSHA believes that robot accidents are more likely to occur during non-standard operations. Starting with setup and programming, testing, maintenance, or the adjustment of robots create critical conditions for workers because they require humans to enter what is normally the robot’s working environment.
Despite those known risks, there are currently no specific OSHA standards for the robotics industry. Saying that, several of the organization’s more generic regulations for machinery apply to robotics all the same.
ANSI Robot Safety Standards
ANSI started working toward robot safety standards several decades ago, recognizing the growing role robotic systems were starting to have. These standards have since been updated to reflect the development in the field. Even in 2023, safety considerations continue to revolve around the importance of risk assessments and the protection of human workers.
One of the main organizations driving robot safety and the protection of workers now is the Robotic Industries Association (RIA). Founded in 1974, RIA has been accredited by ANSI to drive innovation and advancement in the field of robotics, including the development and adaptation of safety standards.
Its members include robot manufacturers, component suppliers, users, research groups, and many more. Their goal is to drive standardization to help everyone in the field thrive safely.
As robot technology is entering new areas, ANSI’s and the RIA’s remit will likely expand. New-generation robots can do more than simply perform repetitive tasks they were programmed to do. As artificial intelligence and machine learning technologies are being applied more regularly, potential applications for the use of robots are increasing, too.
It is no longer unthinkable that humans would train existing autonomous robots to perform new tasks. At the same time, the distance between human workers and robots is shrinking. Physical human-robot interactions are still relatively new, and they are changing the way we think about standard dimensions of safety.
Every work environment carries specific hazards, and robotic systems are no exception to that rule. OSHA states on its website that hazardous situations in relation to robotics often result from unplanned physical interaction between humans and machines. The organization cites the case of a worker intending to do maintenance within the working range of an industrial robot who was pinned between the back of the robotic devices and a steel pole. The worker died from the physical impact.
Avoiding potential hazards like this relies on solid risk analysis of any human-robotic interactions. Compared to human-human interaction, contact between machines and workers needs to follow clearly established rules to protect the health of workers.
Here is an example: when one human enters the workspace of another, they can simply call out and let their colleague know to be careful. When humans interact with robots, they cannot rely on the machine to sense their presence. Instead, we need different safety concepts, including separation monitoring. Another option would be built-in warning systems that shut the robot down when workers are coming too close.
Evolving Safety Standards
As industrial robots continue to evolve, becoming collaborative robots and working more autonomously, the industry needs to ensure its safety regulations evolve, too.
Traditional safety standards have focused on physical barriers creating a safe separation distance between humans and technology. As technologies evolve to further blur the line between people and robots, the industry needs to consider the introduction of measures centered on inevitable interaction between human workers and robotic devices.
Advanced communication technologies could prove critical to achieving occupational safety in the 21st century. But occupational safety is not related to workplace design alone. On top of mechanical risks, industry leaders need to recognize the need for psychological safety as part of their risk analysis.
As technical specifications allow for mobile robots, ANSI and RIA are adapting their standards to reflect the needs of collaborative systems. In combined cyber-physical systems, the previous approach of defining a safe separation distance will no longer work.
Human factors are another consideration. Whilst robot systems can be programmed to stop working when a human breaks a set distance between the two, humans are far harder to control. In addition, stopping a robot from working whenever a human gets too close effectively stops collaboration. As soon as we start considering the potential of a new generation of robots, it becomes obvious just how much further international standards have to evolve.
Another government organization in this space is the National Institute for Occupational Safety & Health (NIOSH). Founded as a research agency to study worker health and safety, the organization branched out in 2017 and formed the Center for Occupational Robotics Research. Just a few weeks after that, RIA also took another step toward greater standardization by creating a partnership with NIOSH and OSHA. Within NIOSH, the Division of Safety Research specifically deals with occupational safety hazards. The goal of collaboration between these bodies is to leverage the knowledge of all organizations combined to drive the development of robotics safety standards.
Building Safety into the System
Robots rarely exist on their own. In manufacturing and other applications, they are part of a larger system. Inherent safety for collaborative work between humans and robots needs to be built into the entire system to be as effective as possible.
Here is an example: a robot arm manufacturer controls the design of its device. The manufacturer chooses whether the arm can function collaboratively or not. What the makers cannot influence, though, is how users are configuring the product.
By combining a collaborative robot arm sourced from one manufacturer with non-collaborative components from another, the end user may lose the benefits of safety measures built into the original arm. The arm itself would have been safe for collaborative working out of the box. However, its configuration limited that built-in safety component.
Understanding the difference between the tool and the system and the potential consequences of configuration is critical to keeping humans safe. Engineers and workers also need to understand how robotic components might interact with other parts of machinery. Only by analyzing potential hazards within the entire system can they ensure that workers remain protected.
Types of Robots and Cobots
Throughout this piece, we have already been referring to different types of robots. Here is a ready-reckoner overview to help clarify their differences and related implications for robot safety.
Industrial robots have become widely used in manufacturing across the United States and the world in general. These robots are often programmable in three or more axes. They are reprogrammable and are considered multipurpose manipulators, able to complete more than one task. Some are fixed in place, whereas others can be moved in between tasks. Aside from manufacturing, common applications of industrial robotics include packaging and product assembly, as well as inspection tasks.
Professional Service Robots
Professional service robots have their place in automation applications outside of industrial tasks. Cleaning robots are a classic example. But these robots are also starting to be used in more demanding fields such as firefighting or surgery. Others are used to complete deliveries. A simple way of thinking about these robots is to consider commercial services that involve tasks other than those requiring human insight or creativity. Some cloud services are ‘staffed’ by professional care robots.
Mobile robots may be used in industrial, commercial, or professional services robots that can travel under their own control. Rather than relying on a human to move them from one place to another, these robots cover the distance on their own. This capacity is raising questions about collision risks and autonomous mobile robot safety standards. Robot mobility is currently posing challenges for safety standards as mobility itself represents an inherent lack of human control over the machine.
These robots were specifically designed to facilitate interaction between humans and machines. More about them is below.
Personal Care Robots
Personal care robots are a fairly new category. These robots are designed to assist humans with a range of physical tasks. They could either supplement or even augment their user’s own abilities. Think of menial and repetitive housework, for example. Robotic vacuum cleaners can make light work of those tasks. Some robots in this category were also specifically developed to facilitate care for elderly people. In the EU, the use of these robots would be influenced by the consumer safety network, a body specifically concerned with the safety of consumer products.
As robotics use becomes more common outside of industrial applications, there is every chance that we will see more uses for robotics technology, both in commercial contexts and in our everyday lives.
Collaborative robot systems are relatively new, and most are unique. The risk assessments conducted before these systems are implemented need to reflect this uniqueness. International standards are one component of that approach, but the knowledge of local plant safety professionals is just as important to help keep workers safe. After all, plant operators know best how they will use the machinery in question. They will also be familiar with mechanical hazards specific to the plant.
Safety standards and the protection of workers become even more critical when collaborative robots are also mobile. With stationary robots, distance can easily create a higher level of safety for persons. Collaboration may be breaking down that barrier, but there is no way in which the robot could approach a person without their knowledge.
Mobile robots may not only interact, but they could move freely. A human in the same workspace may unwittingly get in the way of the robot and expose themselves to potential injury. Creating risk assessments for these scenarios remains difficult because it needs to combine an assessment of human behavioral factors with allowances for interaction with robots.
Gaining Human Co-workers’ Trust
So far, we have approached the topic of robot safety standards from the perspective of workers requiring protection. What we have not yet considered is that workers may potentially be reluctant to collaborate or share a workplace with robots.
Those who grew up surrounded by digital devices may feel somewhat more familiar with using robotics, but others might be skeptical toward or struggle to trust a machine as opposed to a human colleague. Any ethical risk assessment should take this type of skepticism or even anxiety into consideration before implementing any type of robotics.
One of the best ways of gaining human workers’ trust is for robots to perform their job reliably, over and over again. Think of a new robot as a new colleague. Even if the colleague is highly qualified, most companies would start by letting them work under a degree of supervision that is gradually being reduced.
If the robot can contribute to its human colleagues’ safety and efficiency at their jobs, this trust may be built faster. Clear communications are essential for this process. Workers will feel more comfortable about collaborating with a robot if they understand its purpose and how it contributes to the company’s success. This type of employee buy-in is also required to ensure compliance with safety standards.
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Modern manufacturing and many other aspects of modern life would be unrecognizable without robotics. Despite the enormous contributions this technology is making to our society, protecting workers in robotic environments remains a priority for standards bodies and other regulators. Through international collaboration and implementation of safety standards not just across the country but globally, the industry will be able to grow and thrive safely.
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