Home Legal & Insurance Robots in the workplace – a health & safety matter

Robots in the workplace – a health & safety matter

Robot arm in a factory

The rise of technology and digital transformation among businesses of all types has led to the widespread automation of key processes in order to make workplaces as efficient as possible. With this, the rising adoption of robotics in industry means that health and safety issues are growing increasingly complex.

Manufacturing is one sector in which the use of robots is becoming increasingly widespread, but retail and healthcare have also experienced a rise in this type of operations. Robots are able to carry out tasks deemed too dangerous for humans to perform, such as lifting or moving heavy objects or handling dangerous substances. There are also new wearable robotic devices in use that can reduce the risk of injury or aid the rehabilitation of staff members who have been injured.

In scenarios where robots work alongside humans, there are a series of risks that need to be mitigated. For instance, many factories have installed cages and guards to avoid unwanted interaction between humans and fixed robots. However, with new developments in technology creating robots that can move autonomously around a workplace, new risks arise. Employers will be required to understand and anticipate how robots will behave, and how workers might react if certain things happen.

It is vital for businesses planning to introduce robotics and automation to have a firm understanding of legislation that applies to them. They should also dedicate appropriate action plans to reduce hazards associated with robots.

Here, we take a look at what employers should be doing to reduce the chances of an accident involving robots in the workplace.

Robot teething problems

A number of well-publicised incidents have demonstrated that wherever robots are capable of interacting with humans, there are risks that need to be mitigated. As referenced earlier, factories now routinely use cages and guards to avoid unwanted interaction between humans and fixed robots; however, new collaborative devices are being developed that are designed to be used in the same workspace as humans and with these devices come new risks.

Types of accidents caused by robots
Accidents caused by robots can be grouped into the following four categories:

Impact or collision accidents
A robot’s limbs that move unexpectedly or due to a malfunction can lead to accidents.

Crushing accidents
A robot may trap an employee’s body part between itself and another piece of equipment, which can cause fractured or broken bones.

Accidents by mechanical parts
A power source or grip failure could result in an injury to an employee.

Other accidents
Various accidents can be caused by the equipment required to ensure the running of a robot, such as its power supply or pressurised fluid lines.

Who is liable for this type of incident?
The integration of robots into the workplace will impact on traditional liability arrangements. Usually, when something goes wrong with machinery, it can be traced back to a specific defect or operation; however, faults with automated machines can stem from a number of different contributing factors.

An issue with a robot could arise from the machine, the hardware or how it communicates.

To ensure liability can be assigned to relevant parties, it is vital that employers have contracts in place with each supplier in case something goes wrong.

At this time, health and safety legislation does not include any specific rules related to the use of robots in the workplace. However, employers are legally obliged to take reasonable measures to make sure their employees are kept safe. For those firms using robots alongside humans, this could include:

  • Providing clear instructions to staff
  • Limiting operations of robots, for instance, speed
  • Ensuring robots meet minimum machine safety standards

Risk assessment processes should be updated to ensure they account for the full range of potential hazards posed by the use of robots. Common causes associated with accidents involving robots include human error, control errors, mechanical failures, environmental effects, malfunctioning power sources and improper installation.

In addition, employers should look closely at their employees’ skill set, as skills required to work with robots are likely to be different and more technical.

The benefits offered by the use of robotics and automation in the manufacturing industry are plentiful; however, it is the responsibility of the employer to ensure that everything possible is carried out to minimise the associated risks.

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